Maricica Puica at 70, on joy of being an athlete in communism and in recent years, too

As soon as she crosses the finish line, she throws her hands up in relief, just seconds after she'd taken a look back to see that Britain's Wendy Sly couldn't take her Olympic gold. She smiles somewhat shy, talks a little with her coach and husband, Ion Puica, then she goes off and kicks off on a stadium tour with her hands waving. That's all. Where was the joy of a gold medal in the world's supreme competition? Where was that unleashing of the effort, of the decades of work? "Now, if you go up the podium you get relieved, it's a joy, but back then we couldn't let our joy show because they wouldn't let us, to let go, to jump with happiness. You'd shut yourself down in your shell and cry inside you. It was hard, but at the same time it was very, very beautiful," said the first Olympic champion in the 3,000-meter run, Maricica Puica. The communist system imposed a sober attitude on champions even in the happiest moments of their lives. But Maricica Puica also talks about Nicolae Ceausescu's courage to send Romania's delegation to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, boycotted in the midst of the Cold War by all the countries of the communist bloc, led by the then USSR. "You realize that we were controlled by the Russian. And he had a fantastic courage. How could you upset the Big Russian, that is not good." "If anyone wants to see, let them watch the opening from 1984. With what applause and joy the Americans welcomed us when we entered the opening. Extraordinary. And to tell you one more thing. There was a film, 16 days of glories, with seven athletes from all disciplines, and I was chosen too. I got the tape, it was fantastic, I was there when the movie was first aired. They sent us tickets. I didn't know there was a double-decker, first-class plane. The way we were, shabby, they could have sent us to the 3rd class and luggage hold, you realize they could have bought us the cheapest seats. They were excited and the people here, there were only seven athletes from 7 disciplines." At 70, on Wednesday, July 29, the former Olympic champion tells of the USD 2 million offer she received from Fred Lebow, the legendary founder of the New York marathon, to stay in the U.S., an offer she denied for fear of ruining the lives of everyone at home. And she had 12 brothers. She couldn't forget them. With some of them she shared the sneakers with which she ran the races in primary school. Maricica Puica also talks about Romanian athletics, which has been in a ditch for many years, and about Romania's chances for a new Olympic medal. "I'd throw them all out, I'd call the sports people who ate sweat on bread and I'd start with gatherings, sittings. Not alone, in a group. I don't do politics, but the thing is, there aren't the right people in the right place. One of the sports minister was a dentist. How do you know what to do? There are very smart people in sports, young girls who have done school, why aren't they good?! Because they don't do politics." About Ion Puica, her former husband and coach, she has a few words that describe what he represented in her life: "He was everything to me". And she doesn't regret anything. Maricica Puica won the gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in the 3,000m run and the bronze medal in the 1,500m event, in 1987 she won the silver medal at the Rome World Championships in the 3,000m event, after taking the 3,000m bronze at the World indoor Championships in Indianapolis. Her record includes two world cross-country titles (Rome 1982 and East Rutherford 1984), as well as a bronze medal in 1978 in Glasgow, adding to another two silver medals at the 1982 European Championships (Athens) and 1986 (Stuttgart), both in the 3,000m event. First medal: "I started in 1966 and in June 1968 I was chosen to the national cross-country team. And I won with the team in Istanbul. So my first contest was in March 1968 and there was my first medal." Why does she love athletics so much? "I repeat, I loved running, but I liked it even more when I beat them all and won. It was a matter of self-pride, of pleasure, of joy. If you're working, you should also get some results. Then there was no talk of money, they only gave us some diplomas, some plaques. But they were beautiful, some wooden, very nice plaques." Maricica Puica wouldn't change anything. "The only regret, but that's how it was meant to be, that you can't have it all in life, is that I couldn't have a little soul, a child. It was very hard, now you can hire five nannies just to perform. That's what I'm sorry about, but that's what it was meant to be. Otherwise I don't regret anything, nor that I married Puica, absolutely nothing. Now I'm sorry I don't have him around any more. And I cannot bring him back."AGERPRES (RO - author: Adrian Tone, editor: Mihai Tenea; EN - author: Maria Voican, editor: Simona Klodnischi)

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