Like a lot of American athletes, Carolina Kluft was training for the Olympics at the age of 20, but not for a particular event. She was training to become the world’s best marathoner and beat a certain North Korean woman, Kang Byung-su, who won the gold in the 1980 Olympics in Los Angeles. “She just seemed really strong and really fast,” the Swedish runner recalls. “The thing that’s incredible about her for me is that she’s not a very technical athlete — and I’m totally against technique as a runner — but I’ve found myself always just copying her.”
Kluft’s “mistakes” were compounded by her stress-induced migraines and those devastating pressures from the media and fans. (She still has a painful scar from a herniated disc in her lower back that she believes to be caused by a pressure experiment at the final press conference.) But despite her problems, she thrived in the international spotlight. “The more I [witnessed] and the more I was tested, the more I felt like this was a totally normal athlete,” she says. Her win set the bar high for everyone else in the field.
Kluft had personal issues, as well. Not having money in her pocket on the road meant going hungry and sleeping in her car at the Gobi Desert race in China, but what was good for her career was bad for her internal health. “I was losing weight, for one thing, because I couldn’t eat and drink,” she says. “I wasn’t very hungry for nearly three months, so I looked at diets, and I was really unhappy about eating two meals, just food, or even three meals, five days a week, so my weight was way down.” This period of dieting eventually led to weight loss and blood clotting — for the run. “It was bad,” she says, “because [doctors] thought that the weight loss must have led to my blood clots.” But when Kluft came into the Olympic village with just one set of clothes to her name, she quickly got used to it.
If it looks like Kluft had it pretty easy and easy going through life, then you’re not far off. But if you accept the position that she always will be expected to be perfect, it’s hard to let go of some of the pressure that comes with that expectation. Kluft, on the other hand, handled it in a very cool and calm way. “I think we just sort of accept that our little niche of perfection is the only one available,” she says. “We spend a lot of time looking at ourselves in the mirror, and on the road, we’re constantly doing an experiment.” She knows that she can’t walk away with just one set of skills; she’s trained her body and her mind to walk away fully prepared. And Kluft knows she has to keep working, whether that involves taking courses on diet or acupuncture, which helped her when she was sick, or switching up training routines and working harder, which sometimes has lead to her having to hit the gym twice a day to maintain her blood mass.
Kluft isn’t much for books, but her father was a more avid reader, she says, which is why it’s important for her to write a letter to her former teacher that’s gone out to everyone at the school. She wants to read back, to see how they’ve written her letter, and then, she says, to write it again, and to probably send the parents a hand-written thank you note. Kluft did this, of course, because that was the last thing she ever imagined she’d need to do in order to be a successful runner.