Iva is telling us how she first met Emil Zatopek.
“It was because of our dog,” she begins.
Iva is sitting across the long wooden table at Rick and Catherine’s house in Stowe. We’ve finished dinner, but there is an open bottle of wine on the table and the conversation is still lively, moving easily (if erratically) from topic to topic and somehow leading to Iva’s childhood growing up in Prague sixty years ago.
I should explain that Rick is a running buddy from way back. In the mid-eighties when he still lived in Boston, Rick and I frequently trained, raced, and talked running together. We got fast together and set PRs together. But it wasn’t long before Rick’s wanderlust and intellectual curiosity led him away from Boston. He went to graduate school in England, made multiple trips to Antarctica to study lichens, and eventually found his way to a teaching position at the University of Tennessee. He and Catherine were married in 2004. Although they live in the South now, they don’t care for it very much and both of them have long dreamed of moving to Vermont. Three years ago they took a big step in that direction by buying this house just a few miles outside Stowe, with bears in the woods and a view of the mountains. They come up every summer, inviting friends to visit.
This is the first time Ann and I have seen the house. Everyone else around the table has been here before, including Iva and her daughter Katrina, Lou and Sandy and their daughter Claire, and Soph, who has for thirty years spent his summers in a house he built himself out in the woods not more than five miles away from where we are now.
I don’t remember how Zatopek’s name came up in the conversation, but I don’t think we were even talking about running. I think I had been trying to remember the story of American hammer thrower Hal Connolly, whose marriage to Czech discus thrower Olga Fikotova afer the 1956 Olympics had been an international sensation. Zatopek had been the best man at their wedding.
But the mention of Zatopek has brought back memories. Iva continues: “We would see Zatopek running all the time. Everyone knew Zatopek.”
“One day, our dog got out of our yard. He had managed to dig a hole under the fence and he got out and started wandering the streets. Zatopek lived nearby, and he had left a pair of running shoes out on his step. Our dog took one of the shoes and carried it home like a trophy. He brought it home and he tried to bury it in our compost pile.”
“When Zatopek discovered his shoe was missing, he started asking everyone in the neighborhood, ‘Have you seen my shoe?’ ‘Have you seen my shoe?’ Eventually he asked us, and we found the shoe in the compost pile and gave it back to him.”
“Sometimes he ran with army boots on. He wanted to make it harder for himself. And then he would sometimes run carrying me on his back to make himself stronger.”
I take another sip of wine.
“I always heard Zatopek carried his wife, Dana, on his back…”
“Well, Dana was a javelin thrower, you know,” says Iva. “Maybe Zatopek carried her on his back, but we kids were a lot lighter. I think he mostly carried us.”
I admit that this seems more plausible. I had always wondered how Zatopek could have carried a full-grown woman on his back during his runs. Carrying an eight-year-old makes a lot more sense. Then I think: My god, I’m sitting across from a 67-year-old woman who remembers being carried around Prague on the back of Emil Zatopek, the only runner ever to win the 5000, 10,000, and marathon in the same Olympic Games.
“Yes,” says Iva, her voice trailing off and her eyes getting a far-away look. “Everyone knew Zatopek.”