Stroy remembers her time as a 15-year-old at ’68 Games

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For 15-year-old Esther Stroy, it was more than the world’s best summer vacation. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“It felt wonderful,” said Stroy-Harper, now 58. “I just had to see everything, and I wanted to meet everybody. I was like a kid in a candy store.”

The candy store was the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, and Stroy was one of the youngest athletes on the U.S. team. A 400-meter runner, the Spingarn High School sophomore arrived with the rest of the U.S. delegation three weeks before the games began.

“We did things a little differently back then,” Stroy-Harper said. “I got to meet all of the athletes, and we exchanged pins. They gave us 100 USA pins, and I exchanged pins with 100 different athletes from all different countries. I learned say ‘Hello, how are you’ in Spanish, French and German.”

On the track, she found her Olympic dreams cut short by injury.

“I was in the lead in the semifinals, and I pulled my right hamstring coming down the stretch,” Stroy-Harper recalled. “Right before the 1972 Olympics, I injured that same hamstring, so I didn’t make the team. I went to Munich, but as a spectator.”

Stroy-Harper never won an Olympic medal, but she had much better luck in the 1971 Pan Am Games, winning gold in the 4x400 meter relay and bronze in the 200 meters. She also won the 220-yard dash at the 1971 and 1972 AAU Championships.

The District native had planned to be Eugene, Ore., for this year’s Olympic trials and a celebration of the 1968 team, but she had to stay in Washington after a death in the family.

Still active in track and field, Stroy-Harper attended Howard University after graduating from Spingarn. She then went to Stanford University, where she began her career as a coach and a recruiter. After several years in California, Stroy-Harper returned to Washington and began working with athletes on the club level, giving back to the clubs that helped launch her career.

“I coach age-groupers, kids from 8 to about age 17 or 18,” Stroy-Harper said. “After that age, there’s often a void for athletes if they don’t have the opportunity to go to college and hopefully find the right coach.”

After graduating from Spingarn, Stroy-Harper was asked to be on the women’s relay team at Howard, but at the time, there simply weren’t enough athletes to field a women’s track team.

“When I got to college, they were still working on Title IX,” Stroy-Harper said. “I was in my fourth year when they started to recruit some other athletes. I was so glad when they finally passed Title IX. It has really helped a lot of women to get scholarships and be able to go to school.

“It’s so important to get that training as a college athlete, and then use that training to help make an Olympic team, or make a professional team in another sport. It has really changed a lot of females’ lives into being if not equal to the men, at least having a chance to compete.”

Stroy-Harper said she pays close attention to track and field athletes, especially female sprinters.

“I love Allyson Felix,” Stroy-Harper said. “She’s such a nice person, and she really loves the sport. She’ll represent us well in London.

“I am so glad that now she’s running the 200 meters the way it should be run. She’s coming out of the blocks and coming off of the turn in front, instead of playing catch-up like she did her earlier years.”

Stroy-Harper likes Felix’s chances in the 200 meters but says she’s a long shot to win a medal in the 100 meters.

“Carmelita Jeter wants that 100 gold. She can taste it,” Stroy-Harper said. “She seems to be peaking at the right time. Allyson would have to have a super start to have a chance in the 100 meters.”

Stroy-Harper has taken time off from coaching to travel the country with her husband, Daniel Harper, a retired Army officer, whose book “Life of a Solder,” was published in May 2011. Harper received a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and other decorations for his service in Vietnam.

After her travel schedule eases, Stroy-Harper plans to return to coaching and will reactivate the track club she first started with, Sports International, in September. She will work with another former Olympian, Hawaii native Leahseneth “Lacey” O’Neal.

O’Neal competed in the 80-meter hurdles in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and the 100 meter hurdles in the 1972 Games. Both former Olympians believe that track provides a perfect training ground for success in life.

“Track builds character and teaches people about hard work and being determined and not quitting,” Stroy-Harper said. “We want to teach young track and field athletes not just to be good athletes, but to be good all-around individuals.”

Stroy-Harper often is asked by young athletes what it takes to make it to the Olympics. She gladly passes down the same tips that were given to her long ago.

“You have to make your first step count,” Stroy-Harper said. “You have to blast off and run that first 20 yards, and then you’ll settle down. Don’t let nerves overtake you, because in track, or anything else, if you let your nerves get the better of you, you won’t succeed.”

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