Back on Track 

After failing to make the team in 2004, Magdalena Lewy Boulet had to start from scratch for this year's Olympic qualifier.

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When swim season ended, the Lakewood High senior struggling with a new language and looking for a new passion trotted over to the track and started practicing with the team. After a few practices it was clear that this was different. "It was 'Wow,'" she said. "I was more competitive as a runner than I ever was as a swimmer." Interestingly enough, she credits her late start as advantageous to her success. "Because I didn't start when I was a young teenager, I think I avoided some of the injuries that happen to runners who have been doing it for ten or fifteen years. I think my legs are grateful."

After a two-year stint at a community college, Lewy Boulet transferred to Cal, where the raw but talented young runner met Tony Sandoval, who still coaches at the university. He remembers Lewy Boulet as having the gift from the start. "It's not about how talented you are, it's about how hard you are willing to work," he said. "Magda was always ready to learn and she has great energy. When she was here at Cal she majored in human biodynamics, and put her degree to work out on the track." Sandoval said he's worked with more gifted athletes, but few better people. "Magda was a winner here at Berkeley, and would have been even if she had never won a race."


One-third of the way through the race in Boston, Lewy Boulet was up 1:20 seconds. "I was kind of wondering where everyone was," she recalled. "But I looked at my watch and I wasn't going faster than I was supposed to." 5:40, 5:42. Like most distance runners, she measures her progress on how fast she runs each mile. 5:43, 5:41. Eventually she was nearly two full minutes in front of everybody and the runners behind her still didn't know who she was.

After the race, she was shocked to find out the reason. Her competitors might have sussed out who she was had they seen a ponytail, but on this day the 34-year old-Cal grad was wearing a braid. Gamesmanship? One of those things elite athletes do to juke one another out? In fact, Lewy Boulet had not planned it at all. "Really?" she later asks, when told of her peers' confusion. "A braid? I didn't know. I guess I just went with something different that day." And then she laughed, the sound of someone willing at last to see that the best way to get back to the top might just be to let go.


In her two years at Cal, Lewy Boulet became a winner. She was named an All-American for running long-distance races at an elite level. She also fell for Berkeley hard. "This is the very best place," she said on a recent 70-degree afternoon. "I can't imagine living anywhere else. It's the best of all worlds; the culture, the weather." Did she partake of Telegraph Avenue life while finishing her undergraduate degree: Cody's Books? Blondie's Pizza? Rasputin's? Thrift shops? "All of it" she said with a laugh, before adding, "Okay, maybe not Blondie's." She trained in the Berkeley hills and Redwood Regional Park while prepping for her lengthy races. But 5,000 meters was just a warm-up for what came after graduation.

While at Berkeley, she also found love, not surprisingly while running around the track. Her catch was Richie Boulet, a Drake High standout and Golden Bear marathoner who was nationally ranked in men's distance races and at one time ran a 3:53 mile. The couple was engaged while Lewy Boulet picked up a master's degree in exercise physiology at Cal State East Bay, and both helped coach the track team at Cal. In one of those things that couples do, they decided to share one another's interests. Lewy Boulet became a marathoner. She notes that her husband still runs a faster marathon — for now. "One of my goals," she said with a chuckle.

Lewy Boulet had one other significant goal before taking her next big step. She wanted to become a US citizen. She speaks with the zeal of a convert when talking about her adopted country. "It is all about opportunity here," she said with a soft Eastern European accent. "I was used to nobody handing you anything, and here it is there for anyone who wants to get it." She wanted to get it, and after jumping through the various hoops and passing the various tests, it was all over but the ceremony. And so she and Richie got in the car on a sunny Tuesday morning and drove to San Francisco for her swearing in. Lewy Boulet remembers well that she and her fiancé talked the whole way over, never once turning on the radio. They parked and readied themselves for a four-hour event. The date was September 11, 2001.

"I feel a special connection because of that day," she said. "We got to the building and there were all these people running around. We didn't know why. They hurried us into the room and said, 'Okay, it's not going to be a real long one today.' No guest speakers, no big build-up, and they said we don't have four hours; instead it was about five minutes long, and then they said, 'Get in your car and go home.' The brand-new American listened to the events of 9/11 on the car radio with her fiancé for an hour before driving back to their home in Oakland. "It's a very special day. I remember every September 11 now." The circumstances surrounding her citizenship day have only made her feel more connected to her country. "I gained a world of opportunity on a day that several thousand people lost their lives. I love this country, it's my home, and being an American was a choice for me. And I think when you choose something and go through a process to attain it, it's that much more precious."


One hour and twenty minutes into the race, Lewy Boulet had moved further away from the other athletes, building up a 1:55 lead over her closest competitor. Trailing behind her were four runners in a pack, among them Kastor, a heavy favorite to win the qualifier. But Kastor's strategy to hold back some energy in reserves had found her much further behind than expected. Running in the same pack was Russell, who had failed in 2004 using a strategy that looked eerily like Lewy Boulet's four years later. If it had just been two chasers, the pressure would have been less significant. With double that number waiting to catch a fading leader and only the first three going to China, the anxiety of holding on would tax any front-runner. So why did Lewy Boulet take the risk? Right before the starting gun, her coach and husband had told her, "The race will not come to you; you have to go get it."

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