More than a Coach


When I reflect on life, I think of Joni Mitchell.  She is my favorite female artist and poet.  She wrote “We’re captive on the carousel of time.  We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came.  And go ‘round and ‘round in the circle game.”

On July 6, 1931 Laszlo was born in Kosice. . . the Slovakia part of Czechoslovakia.  Coincidentally, one week earlier, on June 29, 1931 a certain Tom Sturak was born in San Diego of Slovak parents whose family resided in Kosice.

Fast forward to the late 50s, early 60s, Laszlo and Coach Igloi were training in Southern California.  You’ve all heard or read of their journey to California, so I’ll leave that to you and others to research.  But I will add that a certain Tom Sturak was also running with Coach Igloi in that time-period, and then with Joe Douglas for many years after for Santa Monica Track Club.  More about Tom later.

In the late 60s, 1969 to be exact, I was out running one day around my school, San Fernando  Valley State College.  I had discovered Track and Field thanks to a forward-thinking woman coach at Granada Hills High School who started the first girls’ track team at my school.  I’d already bombed at every other sport and was happy to join a team that didn’t choose you, but you chose your event.  I went from high school to Pierce where I had a team, but not a coach, and although we competed on a women’s team, we also went to the men’s meets where I was the scorekeeper.  At San Fernando Valley State, which became Cal-State University, Northridge by my graduation,  I had no team and no coach, but I kept running.  It was a random act of fate that I met Judy Graham running, and we became friends.  She gave me a lifetime gift when she said I have a club and I have a coach.  You can join.

Laszlo was more than a coach.  I learned all life lessons through this man, all the life lessons sports can teach you.  I learned “work ethic” the very first workout.  Judy can attest to the fact that just the warm-up was more than I’d ever run at one time.  I was in over my head.  But Laszlo’s commanding presence made it impossible to leave and when he said he would see you next time, you knew you better be there next time.

I learned dedication, commitment, and sacrifice.

I learned you never quit, you always finish what you start.  I learned that in the first race.  He took Judy and me to a cross country race in Ventura.  I collapsed from fatigue and tripped over my own tired feet.  I lay in the dirt wishing an ambulance would come take me away on a stretcher, but that didn’t happen.  I might have heard, from the sidelines, barking orders to get up and finish because that’s what I did.  You always finished what you start.

Judy Graham, JQ, Becky Dennis, Sue Kinsey – LATC 1972

We ran for LA Track Club (an all women’s club with all track events . . . . this was a later version of the LATC that Igloi’s runners ran some years before).  When LATC disbanded for us, Laszlo took his distance runners and went to the Southern California Striders for about just one year.  I mention this because it was in that year that I met a certain Tom Sturak — my future husband.   Eventually, Laszlo formed our own San Fernando Valley Track Club.   So you see, I ran for several clubs and colleges, but always with one coach, Laszlo, who was more than a coach.

It was after LATC but before Striders, when I was a woman without a team, that Laszlo, Judy and I witnessed a teammate of ours named Cheryl Bridges become the first woman to break the 2:50 mark in the marathon when she won Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City in December 1971.  For me, this was the hook.  I was intrigued and inspired.  I wanted to try that.

Laszlo trained me as a miler, but let’s face it.  I was a mediocre miler.  I wasn’t even the best miler on my own team.  Judy was.  Ruth Wysocki joined us later.  She can tell you I wasn’t a great miler.  I’m still a miler at heart, I like it best, but I was a mediocre miler.

Speaking about our training . . . and we were all milers, by the way. . . .

Before there was a term “sports psychology,” our coach was already practicing his version of therapy.  He knew the difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” rewards.  He knew the intrinsic rewards came from within and were longer-lasting.  “We” actually felt rewarded if “we” advanced to being assigned “double workouts.”  And remember “special shakeups?”  They were just disguised intervals, more hard 200s mixed into our alleged cooldown.  And “we” had to ask permission to race.  Honestly, to race was like a holiday . . . . you only had to run hard once that day.  (I’m so glad that Mark Covert mentioned this too, in his tribute!)

Laszlo knew that Judy responded to negative feedback, such as telling her “I know you cannot keep up with the boys, but hang on as long as you can.”  Of course, she tried her hardest to beat them.  I responded to positive feedback, which he figured out after telling me once “You call that running?  I call it baloney.”  I left and ran all the way home.  “Baloney running indeed.”

So imagine my surprise when I asked permission to be like Cheryl and run my first marathon.  I expected rejection.  I got words of wisdom.

He said “There are some things you have to find out for yourself. There are things I wanted to try but never did, and I’ll always wonder.”  So I ran my first marathon, at WHM in Culver City.  It wasn’t as easy as Cheryl made it look, but I learned more life lessons.  Coach and I learned together how to train for my new-found event.  My dear friend and teammate Patrick Miller suggested I go try Boston next since they had just started a women’s division.  I truly discovered my true event.  My lifelong thanks belong to Patrick for accompanying me, and we’re still best of friends today.

More life lessons continued to come.  Following Boston, I learned a big lesson about sacrifice.  I had received my first-ever all-expenses-paid invitation to a road race in Charleston, West Virginia.  On Labor Day.  I had planned to spend my summer doing my favorite backpacking with friends.  But, no, I had to stay home and prepare for the next big race because Laszlo said: “You can hike when you are 84, but no one will pay to watch you run.”  “You’ll stay home, young lady.”

Laszlo had other words of wisdom during our time together.  He said I’d have lots of friends when I am #1 on top, but that he would there for me when I’m not.

Like a great mentor, Laszlo led by example.

He gave us all a chance.  He considered himself once an underdog.  All he expected of us was hard work.  He was always “there for us.”  Remember all those stopwatches he wore around his neck?  And his little black book?  He knew what we were each capable of.  He had that magic eye.  He knew when to give us more work, and when to scale back.  He always brought out our best.

He was more than a Coach.  Tom was more than my partner.  These two men shaped my life.  Laszlo made all things possible.  He made a significant contribution to advancing women’s running.

I believe Laszlo fought the good fight.  He finished the race.  He never quit.

He was so much more than my Coach.

Mark Covert and Laurie Tabori
Tamas Igloi
Rod Dixon, JQ, Tamas Igloi, Claudette Groenendaal
Dave Babaracki
Ruth Wysocki, Judy Graham, Becky Dennis (photo courtesy of Wysocki’s)
Becky Dennis, Richard Nance, Judy Graham
Laszlo’s poster with Grace Padilla