On some weekends, you can see her sitting in the stands in street clothes, watching her old Bingham High teammates. Lynette Petersen, once the brightest of young distance runners, comes to track meets just to watch these days. Perhaps she smiles when she sees Windy Jorgensen, the latest girl wonder runner, collecting victories, records and medals with boring regularity.
It wasn't so long ago that Petersen was the reigning child prodigy on the Utah prep track scene, just as Jorgensen is today. Now, two years after collecting four state championships as a tiny 14-year-old freshman, she has quit the sport. These days she runs on her own, participates in occasional road races and works nights as a custodian at Bingham High School, leaving her coach, Jeff Arbogast, to answer inquiries from baffled college coaches.Whatever happened to Lynette Petersen?
Last December, with tears in her eyes, Petersen told Arbogast that she was quitting the Bingham track team. "I was stunned," said Arbogast. "She is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete."
"I'm just taking a break from it," Petersen explained recently. "I'm getting away from the high school stuff. I'm just putting miles in and trying to get stronger. Coach says he's confused about it, but I don't know why. I plan to come back next year."
Somehow Petersen's explanation hasn't been enough. "It's been the subject of a lot of speculation," says Arbogast.
For years local running afficionados have wondered if mental and physical burnout would catch up with Petersen (as chronicled in a Deseret News story on May 17, 1989). After all, she has been training and competing since she was 7-years-old.
There has been another concern, as well. What would happen when Petersen matured? Sport is a precarious venture for young girls. In gymnastics and running, in particular, they can reach peak form as youngsters, only to fade with the onset of puberty, when the body undergoes the normal changes - the widening hips, the redistribution of weight, etc.
"The strength-to-weight ratio changes," says BYU track coach Craig Poole. "Suddenly the body changes, but the strength doesn't."
As a freshman, Petersen was 5-foot, 95 pounds. A year later she was 5-7, 110. Now she is 5-7 1/2, 120 pounds. "She still has a good running physique," says Arbogast. That's true, but some, including Petersen herself, wonder if her strength has kept pace with her growth.
This much is known: Petersen is no longer mowing through the competition. As a freshman she won the state cross country championships, and the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter titles in track. As a sophomore, she won the state cross country championships again, but at the state track meet six months later she slipped to second in the 800 and 1,600, although she managed to win the 3,200. Last fall, she placed eighth in the state cross country meet. Shortly after that she bowed out of the Kinney national championships in California.
Victories have been more difficult to come by from week to week, and that, as much as anything, led Petersen to retire for a season. When she tearfully quit last December, she told Arbogast, "I don't want to be an also-ran."
Asked about this, Petersen explains, "All my life I've been up there, and all of a sudden I haven't been able to perform. I've been falling back. After the race, I'd hear (the P.A. announcer say) So-and-So won the race, and also running was Lynette Petersen. It made me feel bad."
In truth, Petersen's performances (times) actually have continued to improve, and most of her losses have been close. But losses of any kind have been difficult to cope with. "She went to races all her life and wouldn't face any real competition," says Arbogast. "Her confidence has never been the same since the first time she lost."
Says Weber State track coach Jim Blaisdell, "Another thing that happens to these girls as they mature is they get discouraged, because they're not the same runner they used to be . . . Some girls make the adjustment, some don't."
Despite all the difficulties, there have been other age-group stars who have survived the perils of burnout and puberty. Mary Decker did it. Zola Budd, considerably bigger and heavier, is making what appears to be a successful comeback. Petersen vows she'll return. In the meantime, she watches and waits. "When they call my races," she says, "yeah, I miss it."