41. Deena Kastor

41. Deena Kastor

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Deena Kastor

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.
 ~John Quincy Adams

Deena Kastor is one of the greatest women distance runners in the world. In addition to winning the bronze medal in the marathon at the 2004 Summer Olympics, she is the American record holder in the marathon (2 hours, 19 minutes and 36 seconds) as well as in the 10,000 meters (30:50.32).

However, it is more than fast times that in my eyes make Deena a true champion and role model. Let me share with you Deena’s trip to the 2007 Track & Field World Championships in Osaka, Japan, where she competed in the 10,000 meters.

Deena went to the World Championships with the realistic goal of standing on the medal platform. However, she didn’t have her best race by any measure and finished a disappointing — for her — sixth. So instead of a medal, Dena received heartbreak. And yet when she was interviewed right after the race, when her disappointment was at its max, Deena made no excuses and graciously congratulated the other runners. This again was not amazing though, because Deena is always gracious in victory and defeat.

No, here is the amazing thing Deena did. Two days after her disappointing race in Osaka, she returned to the United States with her husband, Andrew, but instead of feeling sorry for herself for a bummer of a race, Deena was already thinking about others who don’t even have running shoes much less races to run in. Specifically, she was thinking about the underprivileged (in truth, NO-privileged) children from inner-city Los Angeles, to the Dominican Republic, to Sudan, Uganda, Liberia, and Kenya, to whom my “Share Our Soles” (S.O.S.) organization sends used running shoes so they can enjoy this great sport that helps provide confidence, self-esteem, friendships, and strong character — you know, so kids can be a little like Deena.

Before they even arrived at their Southern California vacation beach house in Oxnard, Deena called me to say she had another batch of running shoes for S.O.S. for me to clean up and then send off to underprivileged youth in faraway lands. The truth is, the shoes Deena donates don’t require much cleaning. They are almost like new; some, in fact, are brand new.

I created S.O.S. five years ago after a hip stress fracture and then serious knee problems sidelined me from running track and cross country my freshman and sophomore years in high school. Though heartbroken, I knew I would eventually get healthy and run and race again, but I started thinking about kids who can’t enjoy the great sport of running not because of injury but simply because they don’t have running shoes. To date we have collected and donated more than 4,100 pairs of running shoes to needy kids. Deena and Andrew have been my biggest supporters, donating more than 300 pairs by themselves.

Deena does more than just unlace her shoes after a few weeks and a couple hundred miles and toss them in a bag. She also collects them from many of the world-class runners she trains with. Andrew, who is a personal trainer, collects shoes from his clients. And then they pack these smelly shoes in their car and drive them all the way from Mammoth Lakes to Oxnard for me to pick up. Of course they offer to deliver them to my door, but I always insist on coming to get the latest haul, which is always a thrill because they invite me in for a long visit.

Obviously, I want to talk to Deena, who is nicer than words can describe, about her amazing career. But she and Andrew, who is equally friendly and warm, would rather ask me about my training and racing — for Ventura High School during the first two years after I met her and now for the cross country and track teams at the University of Southern California where I’m a sophomore. In truth, we end up talking a lot about everything but running.

During my pick-up visit just a couple of days after her 2007 World Championship disappointment, Deena apologized because she said she left some near-new running shoes in her hotel in Japan. On purpose. She explained that the housekeeping staff would be able to take the shoes — as well as some clothes and backpacks she left behind — home to their families. To me, that is Deena — a champion not only on the track, but more importantly a champion in the sport of life.

Indeed, being a champion does not necessarily mean winning a gold medal or even a bronze. As greatly as I admired Deena after she earned a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, my admiration grew further still after her heartbreaking — rather, bone-breaking — race in the 2008 Olympic marathon where she was forced to drop out after less than five miles because of a stress fracture in her foot. Typically, Deena did not react with anger or self-pity. She met with the media and was a portrait of grace and dignity. Rather than dwell on her own misfortune, Deena looked beyond her own setback to help others; shortly upon returning to United States she gave me another load of running shoes for S.O.S. As I said, Deena proves one can be a champion without breaking the tape, without standing on the medal platform, even without crossing the finish line.

I have a framed autographed picture of Deena hanging on my wall with the inscription: “Greg — Keep inspiring! Continue making a positive difference in all you do!”

Truly, those words best exemplify what Deena Kastor does — and not just after a medal-winning race.

~Greg Woodburn

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