Fast on her feet

MANSFIELD – A slightly graying, still slender 48-year-old Michelle Rohl, assistant coach for the women’s cross- country team at Mansfield University, took the microphone Thursday to talk to a few hundred kids about her experience as an Olympic race-walker.

With the start of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi on Thursday, Rohl was invited by former university professor Ron Remy and school officials to come to the high school and talk about her experience in the Olympics 14 years ago.

Before giving a demonstration at the request of a student, who asked, “can you show us how fast can you walk now,” Rohl said she is 50 pounds heavier since her days as an Olympic race walker, and “a lot older.”

But, she then proceeded to bring applause and cheers from the students as she blew everyone away with her speed and agility, flying around the high school gym in her race-walking uniform, which she had on under her sweatsuit.

Rohl said she was a 1,500-meter cross-country runner in college.

In 1990, she decided to train for race walking, which she said “is a big difference from running.” Rohl made the Olympic team the first year women’s race walking was added to the games, 1992, when she raced 10,000 meters.

She competed in three Olympic Games – the first in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain; the second in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia; and the third in Sydney, Australia in 2000.

She told the students about the history of the Olympics first, and how women really were not allowed to participate in most sports until the 1970s, after Title 9 brought gender equality to high school sports.

“Before that girls’ sports were intramural only. Girls never left the school to compete against other girls,” she said.

Though she never placed better in the Olympics than 14th in 1996, Rohl is a five-time USA Indoor Champion, winning in 1995, 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2001; and a four-time U.S. outdoor 12.4 miles champion in 1999 through 2001 and 2003. She also won silver and bronze medals at the Pan American Games in 1995 and 1999.

Rohl holds three current American records; in the 6.21-mile walk, 44:17, set on Aug. 7, 1995, in Goteborg, Sweden; the 12.4-mile race walk, 1:31:51, set on May 13, 2000, in Kenosha, Wisc.; and the 9.32-mile race walk, 1:08:35, also set in Kenosha en route to the 12.4-mile record.

She encouraged girls and boys to participate in sports for the love of fitness and the potential chance to compete globally.

“Girls today don’t know how we had to fight for sports,” she said. “It’s important for girls to compete and value this opportunity to compete.”

Rohl gave a lot of credit to one of her heroines, “Francie” Larrieu, of Palo Alto, Calif.

“Francie was the first, and only, woman to compete in the 1976 800-meter run, when it was introduced for women,” Rohl said.

“She worked hard to fight for women’s rights in sports,” she added. “Because of her, I didn’t have to fight as hard.”

Rohl also talked about security in response to a question from a student.

“We were always concerned about security,” she said, explaining that a police escort accompanied her team on its route to Barcelona from the Paris airport.

“Every year you see there is a security concern. It started in 1972 when the Israeli team was killed. Before that they didn’t realize they needed security,” she said.