Southwestern University coach and five-time Olympian Francie Larrieu Smith
This month, millions of people around the world will tune in to the 2018 Olympics Games held in PyeongChang, South Korea. For three weeks, they’ll cheer, cry, and hold their breath as they watch thousands of men and women competing on the world’s greatest athletic stage. Many will wonder what it takes to be an Olympic athlete.
Southwestern University’s head coach of Cross Country and Track and Field, Francie Larrieu Smith, knows a little something about that—she made the 1972, 1976, 1980, 1988, and 1992 Olympic teams. Francie’s spent decades chasing her Olympic ambitions and drills down what it’s like to be on top.
Growing up in Palo Alto, California, Francie spent her days playing outside and racing her siblings in the orchards behind her home. Running was in her family. Her older brother, Ron, ran competitively in college and later ran the 10,000m at the 1964 Olympics. It was at one of his track meets that Francie had an epiphany.
“My parents took us to watch him run at the California Relays in Modesto, California. I remember sitting up in the stands, seeing that there were girls on the track,” Francie recalls. “I looked at my parents and said, ‘I want to run. I want to be down there.’”
But she didn’t just want to race—Francie set her sights on the Olympics. Many children dream of becoming an Olympic athlete, but Francie took her desire and attached goals to it. “I don’t know where that came from because no one ever spoke to me about goals,” she says. “I knew that I wanted to go to the Olympics and that in order to get there I had to be the best runner I could be and train hard.”
Francie started running in track clubs at 13 years old, spent her afternoons (and quite a few mornings) putting in the miles, and competed in every race she could. Running became her sole focus, and she didn’t dwell on external obstacles. Francie had only one obstacle in her quest for the Olympics. “The only obstacle was me. Throughout my career, there was nothing that stood in my way more than me,” she explains.
In 1972, 19-year-old Francie’s hard work paid off when she made her first Olympic team and headed to Munich, Germany.
Under the surface
Every Olympic Games is more than a competition—it’s an elaborate celebration of world unity. The opening ceremonies not only herald the competition’s start but also introduce the host country and the athletes to the world. That moment is etched in Francie’s mind. “For any Olympian, walking in opening ceremonies—particularly for the first time—validates all the hard work you’ve put in over the years. It’s an incredibly satisfying moment,” she remembers. Francie stood in Munich’s Olympiastadion (Olympic stadium) and marveled at the experience of being surrounded by thousands of athletes from around the world who were participating in different sports—something that she’d never experienced in international track competitions.
Francie was also introduced to the pageantry and events surrounding the Games. Olympic athletes’ days are filled with interviews, meetings, host-country celebrations, and activities inside the Olympic village—on top of practicing and competing. Francie enjoyed living in the Village during her Olympic experiences, too. “The Olympic village is a gathering of the world in one spot. You’re interacting with people from other cultures, and you have a great opportunity to meet athletes from other sports and to go see their sports,” Francie says.
But amidst the glamour and prestige of the Olympics is the ever-present excitement of competition. And while Francie had run in countless races before, competing in the Olympics required a more intensive focus and stronger mental game.
Many factors weighed on her mind: the importance of racing in the Olympics, the reality of running in front of thousands of people, and a host of internal and external pressures common to all Olympic athletes. One of those challenges was the “in-between times.”
After getting advice from coaches, athletes typically gather in a holding area waiting for their heat or race. For Francie, that meant staying mentally focused on her race plan while surrounded by her competitors for an hour before each race. “The better you get [at navigating that time span], the more successful you’re going to be,” she says.
External events surrounding the Games can also have a tremendous impact on mental focus and performance. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, six Israeli coaches and five of their athletes were held hostage and later killed. “I was very disappointed with my performance at the Olympic Games,” Francie explains. “I don’t like making excuses, but having the Israeli athletes captured and killed between my preliminary race and my semifinal race definitely affected me. There’s no doubt about it.”
In 1980, Francie made the Olympic team, but her hopes for a gold medal were dashed when the United States boycotted the Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later at the 1984 Olympic trials, Francie came in fifth in the 3K and didn’t make the team.
Some might’ve called it quits, but not Francie. Like many fellow Olympians, she has a resiliency and an ability to keep a steady eye on her goals that kept her striving forward. Francie began running longer races and qualified for the marathon at the 1992 Olympic trials. At 39, Francie was selected to be the U.S. flagbearer for the opening ceremonies in Barcelona. As she solemnly walked into the stadium, she felt more than the weight of the flag. “That was an out of body experience. All I could think of was that I had to be perfect, that this was a symbol of the American people,” Francie recalls. “You see all those American flags waving back down at you [from the stands], and that’s the moment that it hit me what I was doing. That was pretty special.”
Keeping the gems
Today, Francie’s known as Coach Smith. She’s out early with her runners, encouraging them to do their best while instilling some of the mental focus, resiliency, and training she learned from her Olympic days. “Athletic competition is athletic competition regardless of the arena in which you compete,” Francie explains.
And what’s her advice for all those watching the upcoming Olympics and wishing to be an Olympian, too? Francie hones it down to a little bit of genetics, a tidbit of wisdom, and a simple philosophy: “It takes 10 years of purposeful practice and focus, and you can be the best that you can be at what you do. This isn’t something you can wish for—you have to work for it.”