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Profile: Kara Grgas-Wheeler (and Adam Goucher)

Above: Grgas-Wheeler competes in the 5,000m at the 2001 USATF National Championships, Goucher competes in the 5,000m at the 2001 World Championships.
(Fast-Women/MensRacing Photos)

By Mike Sandrock

If marriages are built on common interests, then Kara Grgas-Wheeler and Adam Goucher should have a long life together.

The two Boulder-area running stars are engaged to be married, with the wedding set for Sept. 16 in Lyons, Colo. The pair are two of the best young American runners around, with a long list of credentials to their names, including six NCAA cross country and track titles between them.

In addition, Goucher has won U.S. National titles in the indoor 3,000 meters, outdoor 5,000 meters, 4k and 12k cross country races, along with last summer's Olympic trials 5,000. He was the only American to make the 5,000m final both at the Sydney Olympic Games and the recent World Track and Field Championships in Edmonton, Canada.

Grgas-Wheeler -- who will go by Kara Goucher after getting married -- was in Edmonton with Goucher, but not as a competitor. After a stellar 2000 which saw her win two NCAA track titles and the collegiate cross country championships, Grgas-Wheeler had plans to be on the U.S. Team along with Goucher. However, her 2001 season was marred by a severe case of patellar tendonitis that is still bothering her.

On August 2nd, Grgas-Wheeler had an MRI and said she might be forced to undergo surgery that would keep her from competing for a year. She and her coach, Mark Wetmore, are optimistic that two more months of rehab will cure the injury, which forced her to miss the indoor season and two months of training this spring.

"It was a rough year," said Grgas-Wheeler. "I didn't win many races, but I have learned a lot."

In April, it looked like she might still be able to salvage her season. After six weeks of full training, she showed she was back by running the fastest collegiate 5,000-meter time in the nation at that point in the year, clocking 15:41.78 in Palo Alto, Calif.

"We wanted to let the world know Kara is back, and let her know that she is back," Wetmore said of the race.

But her next race, the 1,500 meters at the Big 12 Championships at the end of April, did not turn out as well. Grgas-Wheeler, the defending champ, placed sixth in 4:27.5, in part because she had gastrointestinal problems between Friday's prelims and Saturday's finals.

That poor race affected her mentally at her final collegiate race, the NCAA 5,000 meters. Her plan was to sit in the pack until late in the race, but after a slow first mile she took a lead which she held until 600 meters go to. When eventual winner Lauren Fleshman of Stanford passed her, Grgas-Wheeler faded, finishing seventh.

"It was one of those mental things," she said. "When Lauren went by me I thought 'Oh no, this is my nightmare.' I got booty-lock and then more people went by on the final straight-away. I did not have the confidence there, after having been sick at Big 12s. NCAAs was really a disappointing race, and I was starting to have doubts. The mind is so important. It can
unseat you before you start. That is what happened to me."

Soon afterwards, Grgas-Wheeler signed a contract with Nike. Her first -- and only, so far -- race as a professional was a solid 15:41, seventh-place finish at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

"I ran a conservative race, because I had no confidence," said Grgas-Wheeler, who started out dead last at nationals. Her mile splits were 5:03, 5:01 and 4:59, and she steadily passed people throughout the race. "In a way it was kind of relaxing. I loved running for CU, and it changed my life running-wise. But as the season went on and I got more titles I felt a lot of pressure putting the (Colorado) uniform on. This was a nice change. Half of the girls were wearing Nike, and I did not stick out."

Grgas-Wheeler has not run a step since the U.S. Track Championships, trying to get her knee healthy.

"It is good that I have so much to do now, planning for the wedding," she said. The injury has been frustrating, especially after a bad season. I am hoping I don't have to have surgery and that I can rehab my knee and make the World Cross team. That is my goal now. I can do it if I am in Kara Wheeler shape."

Key to Grgas-Wheeler's ability to keep sane during this time off has been the support of Goucher. The two first met in 1993 at the Foot Locker High School National Cross Country Championship (won by Goucher), although they did not strike up a friendship until both were students at the University of Colorado.

The two began dating early last year. And when it came time over the 2000 Christmas holidays for Goucher to ask Grgas-Wheeler to marry him, he approached popping the question with the same care he takes towards preparing for a championship race.

On the appointed day, Goucher flew in Grgas-Wheeler's mother from Duluth, Minn., in order to ask for her approval. Then he got Grgas-Wheeler out of the house by telling her he needed to buy some more gifts. While the pair were shopping, Goucher's sisters, Cindy and Debbie, and brother-in-law Jake, went to Goucher's house to prepare it, per Goucher's specifications.

"I was kind of mad (when they spent the day shopping)," Grgas-Wheeler recalled. "I said, 'Adam you don't have your shopping done yet?' "

Shopping, however, was just a ploy to get Grgas-Wheeler out of the house. When she and Goucher returned home, she found rose petals laid out in a path leading to the living room. There sat a dozen roses, two wine glasses, a bottle of sparkling grape juice, strawberries and whip cream, all in front of a toasty fire.

"Adam was so nervous," said Grgas-Wheeler. "I asked him what was going on, and he gave me a card."

Inside the card were the words "Say Yes." Goucher then reached beneath a couch where he had stashed the engagement ring -- which he designed -- and gave it to Grgas-Wheeler.

"I was so happy I could not talk," Grgas-Wheeler said. "It felt like an eternity before I could answer ... The best was that he flew my mom in."

The pair then went to Goucher's mother's house in Nederland, Colo., to celebrate. They picked a September wedding, Goucher said, because it will be after the track season, meaning they can go on a honeymoon and relax without having to worry about training.

Goucher said he and Grgas-Wheeler hit it off from the start. "We are in a unique situation," he said. "I understand Kara and she understands me."

"We are best friends," added Grgas-Wheeler. "Adam completely understands me and is always there. We have a lot of fun together all the time; it is great."

It hasn't always been so great for Grgas-Wheeler. Just three years ago, it looked as if her running career might be over. She had a pain in her leg so bad that she had not run in more than a year. She went from medical office to medical office, from specialist to specialist, and no one could give her an answer.

It was a difficult time for Grgas-Wheeler, an all-state runner at Duluth East High School in Duluth, Minn., who had a solid first two years at Colorado. As a freshmen in 1996, she placed 11th in the Big Championships. Her sophomore year she finished third in the Big 12 and was 56th at the NCAA championships.

Then came the problems with her leg, which caused her to redshirt all of 1998. Making it even worse was the fact that no one could tell Wheeler what was wrong. "I saw so many doctors here, so many doctors at home, but they could not help me," she said. "But I knew, and my mom and my sisters told me, that there has to be someone who knows what is wrong. I never gave up. It took 13 months to find an answer."

The answer came in an unexpected place. On a road trip to Lincoln, Neb., to watch her Colorado teammates race, Wheeler talked with the father of CU runner Carrie Messner. "He is a doctor and said to have a compartment test, and when I did, that is what it was," Grgas-Wheeler said. "Basically it is when your muscles become too developed for the sheath they are in. The sheath is too tight, which does not allow blood flow. The muscle has nowhere to go, which puts pressure on the bone. It was painful even to walk."

Helping Wheeler cope was remaining part of the team even when she could not run. "I went every day to practice and stretched, and Mark still met with me every week."

Wheeler had surgery in Denver in November of 1998. She recovered quickly enough to be able to compete in track, where she was an All-American twice. She placed seventh in the indoor 3,000 meters and second outdoors. In the fall, she won the pre-national cross country meet and ended up ninth in the 1999 NCAA Championships.

Then in June of 2000 she won the NCAA 3,000 and 5,000 meter titles and in the fall won the NCAA Cross Country Championships. It was just before winning the 2000 Big 12 cross country meet that Grgas-Wheeler began running under a last name that honors her late father, Mirko Grgas. "Grgas-Wheeler has always been my legal last name," she said at the time. "With the success that I am having I want to acknowledge all parts of my family."

So far she has done her family proud and she wants to continue her success as part of a new family with Goucher, with whom she has much in common. Both are self-motivated, disciplined and fun to be around, their many friends say. And both followed the pattern set up by Wetmore, a multi-Big 12 coach of the year. That means running lots of miles the first couple of years of college, looking for long-term success. Explains Grgas-Wheeler, "It is money in the bank. If you can handle it, you can end up NCAA Champion."

Having taken the long road to becoming a champion makes this injury hard to handle, said Goucher. "Kara is very frustrated and understandably so. I told her that we have to do everything right. There is no quick fix."

One result of the knee injury is that it has made Grgas-Wheeler appreciate her running, just as she did when she first started out as a schoolgirl in Northern Minnesota. "I just want to go for a jog," she said before leaving for Edmonton, a note of sadness in her voice. "I just want to run again."

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