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In a Time of War, Runner Ties a Yellow Ribbon

Deena Drossin is one of the fastest women on earth. She’s the fastest female marathoner in American history. She’s considered the American distance runner with the best shot at winning a medal at next year’s summer Olympics in Athens. For now, though, the color she runs for is yellow — the color of the ribbon she wears around her arm.

To many Americans these days, yellow ribbons are a powerful statement, and to some, a touchy one. They sometimes are taken to signify unqualified support for the American war effort in Iraq. Wearing them in Europe, where opposition to the war runs high, is seen these days as an act of defiant American patriotism.

But Drossin, who wore the ribbon April 13 while running the London Marathon — in which she placed third — doesn’t mean it that way. Far from it.

Her ribbon, she told the Forward in an interview, is a way of “acknowledging the war that we’ve inflicted on Iraq and hoping for peace, soon.”

“I don’t mean for it to be anything political,” she said. “It’s just in support of some of our friends that are over there.”

The 30-year-old Drossin finished the London marathon in a remarkable two hours, 21 minutes and 13 seconds, breaking by six seconds an American marathon record that had stood for 17 years. Even more remarkable, she did it in only her third marathon — a race that’s about four times longer than her previous forte, the 10,000-meter run.

Drossin was already the reigning American champion in the women’s 10,000-meter run when she ran her first marathon two years ago.

Drossin said that the reactions to her yellow ribbon were very positive when she ran in London, as they were several weeks earlier in Switzerland, when she donned the ribbon at the World Cross Country championships.

“My main reason for wearing the yellow ribbon had nothing to do with military issues or politics of Britain and the U.S. and Iraq,” Drossin said. “So many people were over there for whatever the cause is, whether they’re from the Iraqi regime or the U.S. army or British military. People are over there doing a very threatening job for other people that are sitting behind a desk. For me, it was just compassion for the people out there fighting, no matter what side they were on.”

Drossin said that she attempts to promote peace with her running. Last year, she was named U.S.A. Track and Field Humanitarian Athlete of the Year for her work with young runners.

While not what most people would call a religiously observant Jew, Drossin said that she is quite proud of how she was raised and has definite ideas about what being Jewish means to her.

“I’ve had this discussion with my mom, and we both agree that it’s more of a family orientation, a family value and a closeness,” Drossin said. “Not anything greater or more spiritual than that. It’s just loving to be with people, family and friends and being welcoming — and loving being surrounded by them. A combination of my family and sports has helped me love people in general. It may sound a little corny but that’s exactly what my entire family is about. When you’re out traveling in the world, human beings are human beings. Everybody has something to offer no matter what their culture, profession or nationality.”

Drossin said that she has never experienced antisemitic or anti-American attitudes during her running career. “If you’re a good person, you’re going to attract good people,” Drossin said. “I think the people who have negative experiences in places they visit, they might be asking for it because they haven’t been respectful themselves.”

Drossin has more than a year to decide whether she will attempt to qualify in the marathon or 10,000 meters for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Despite her newfound success as a marathoner, Drossin said she is leaning toward the 10,000 meters.

“When it comes down to making the final decision, my decision is going to be wherever my greatest hopes for a medal are,” Drossin said.

While Drossin broke the American record with her third-place finish in London, she was nearly six minutes behind Britain’s Paula Ratcliffe, who set a world record.

Drossin’s previous marathons were in Chicago last year and in New York in 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks.

After taking a bit more time to recover from her London run, she will begin training for her next big event: the U.S. Track and Field Championship in June.

There, she plans to run in the 10,000 and, if all goes well, compete for the United States in the 10,000 meters at the World Track and Field Championships two months later in Paris.

Born in Massachusetts and raised in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., near Yosemite National Park, Drossin attended the University of Arkansas on a track scholarship. In 1992, she narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in the 5,000 meters. By 2000, however, she had made the American team as a runner in the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters. She qualified at the Olympic trials, after finishing second in the shorter distance. Drossin broke a meet record while finishing first in the 10,000 meters.

Despite her success, Drossin acknowledged that even world-class runners entertain thoughts of quitting during a race. “Most definitely,” Drossin said. “I actually even do that at 10K’s on the track. You’re pushing your body and you’re pushing it so hard that it’s extremely uncomfortable. But you bring yourself back into the spirit of the occasion and realize what you’ve been working so hard for, and it keeps you going.”

It happened to her during the London Marathon, but mind over matter won out — and the longest-standing American track and field record was no more.

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