Track Stars Run Into Marriage

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ALTHOUGH world-class athletes orbit in a multicultural environment, rarely do they bridge their differences by marrying. Track stars Lisa and Yobes Ondieki are an exception, evidence that kindred athletic spirits can become partners in life, not just colleagues on the track.

Ms. Ondieki, an Australian marathoner, and her husband, Kenya's top 5,000-meter runner, are Olympians whose relationship began modestly four years ago in Seoul and has blossomed into one of the most-watched unions at these summer Games.

After finishing 12th in Los Angeles and second in Seoul, Lisa entered the women's marathon last Saturday as one of the pre-race favorites, only to see her hopes for a medal go up in smoke when forced to drop out in mid-race.

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Yobes runs Thursday in the 5,000-meter semifinals and is expected to advance to Saturday's final. The family honor now rests on his shoulders here, but both runners will be heard from long after the Olympic flame is extinguished.

Asked at a media conference here if constant togetherness - training, traveling, and sharing a home life - wasn't a bit much even for two happily married people, Yobes replied, "That's the fun part, if you are a family. That's the way it's supposed to be. We are not just man and woman, we are athletes, parents. It's a very good combination."

The couple's 20-month-old daughter, Emma, travels with them, as does Lisa's mother, Shirley, who has taken a year off from her job as a teacher to babysit as the Ondiekis concentrated on their Olympic preparations. Met at Seoul Olympics

Yobes, like many Kenyans a relentless high-altitude trainer, has persuaded his wife to adopt a similar regimen at their American training base in the mountains surrounding Flagstaff, Ariz. He originally came to the United States to study at Iowa State University.

While at the '88 Olympics, Lisa met Yobes but hardly got to know him, owing to his quiet, private nature. Upon learning that he trained in Albuquerque, N.M., however, she decided to travel there from Phoenix, her home of the moment, after the Games. Even then, she found it hard to get a reading on his feelings for her.

"I had to chase him a little, and I caught him," she says, adding that she's one of the few to have done so.

Yobes prefers to push the pace early. "Instead of kicking at the end, you kick at the beginning," he says. "If you run very fast, it's enough to drop the other athletes." He employed the unorthodox strategy with great success at last year's track-and-field world championships, where he broke away from the field on the second of 12 1/2 laps and never relinquished his position.

Lisa, a converted 400-meter hurdler, has typically trained about as hard as her husband, putting in 140 miles in an average week. But now she puts in a lot of speed work, too. Yobes pushes her to do as many as 50 200-meter repetitions, with only a short rest in between - and this on the day after a 35-km (22-mile) run.

"He just expects that; it's no big deal to him," she says. "When you live with someone who doesn't think that's spectacular, you get into this frame of mind that you can do it."

Lisa says she's learned the importance of a can-do attitude through years of fending for herself on the international running circuit. For her, marrying a man from the other side of the world, from a distinctly different culture, is "just another challenge, like running in the marathon.

"I did not even contemplate what it would be like living in Kenya. I thought I would jump that hurdle when I came to it."

If they can do it financially, the Ondiekis, who run for the Nike International team when not for their national teams, would like to maintain homes in three countries. They currently own a home in Canberra, Australia, are building one in Kenya, and rent apartments in both Phoenix and Flagstaff. Cultural clashes

This disjointed style of living is sometimes further complicated by their ongoing attempts to learn more about each other. "I'm still discovering Yobes," Lisa says. "His background, his life as a child, his family, all this history of his country just keeps coming out."

One of the more amusing instances of culture clash occurred the day after Yobes returned home to Canberra from last year's world championships: He up and announced that he needed to go to Kenya to visit his family. The only catch was, his flight was that afternoon. "In our culture," Lisa says, "you just don't say `I'm going to Kenya at 3 o'clock.' "

She was upset, but with disarming innocence and courtesy, Yobes called her from every stop along the way, eventually dissolving her anger in laughter.

"His intentions were good; he didn't think he was doing anything wrong. He just had an urge to check on his family. You just have to have a sense of humor."

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