Race-walk champion overcomes injuries and losses to compete

Saturday, June 21, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:29 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Competitors powered through a 1500-meter race walk at the 2014 Missouri State Senior Games on Friday.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of the headline for this story incorrectly stated the name of the event.

COLUMBIA — Broken ribs and a broken collarbone couldn't keep Maurine Lia away from the track for long.

Prior to the start of the 1500-meter race-walk event Friday at Missouri State Senior Games, Lia, 81, spent her time warming up on the track, always keeping one foot on the ground practicing the race-walk technique.

Over the past year, Lia's life has seen considerable change. Last year on Father’s Day, she was thrown from a friend’s horse, and the fall broke her collarbone and several ribs. The injuries kept her out of last year’s national race-walk  event.

“I couldn't walk," Lia said of her injuries. "I couldn't breathe."

Lia's first race came in 1987 when her daughter suggested that the two of them compete in the St. Mary's women's walking race in St. Louis. They began the race together, but Lia decided to take off.

"I came in third, and I thought it was a fluke," she said. "We did it again the next year, and I came behind the same two people, so I said ‘I want to learn that funny looking walk.'"

Lia has been race-walking for more than a quarter-century. Throughout those years, her husband, Ralph Lia, was usually watching from the sidelines.

This was the first year he didn't make the drive with Maurine from their home in St. Louis to Columbia. He died on March 3 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

“He went to every one of my races that he could drag his body to,” Lia said.

On the days he couldn't make it, she would arrive home after an event and show off the medals she won, and he would respond with a flat, “Oh, two more?”

“It takes a lot to impress a 94-year-old,” Lia said with a laugh.

Lia crossed the finish line Friday with a time of 11 minutes and 7 seconds. She placed first in her age group to win the gold medal.

Her younger sister, Shirley Zoeliner, clapped in applause as Maurine stepped off the track and raised her arms in triumph.

“Thank you, little sister!” Lia said as she leaned against the railing of the bleachers and tilted her head back to take a gulp from her yellow Gatorade bottle.

Zoeliner said the loss of her own husband three years ago allows her to empathize with Lia. During Lia’s recovery from the accident, Zoeliner became her sister's beautician. She did Lia's hair and makeup when it became too difficult for Lia to do on her own.

Zoeliner tried race-walking as well, only to realize that it might just be something only her sister can do.

“My sister, years ago, tried to teach me, and it didn’t go anywhere,” she said.

“That’s because you’re stubborn,” Lia replied.

“I can walk. I can’t race-walk. There’s a knack to it, not everyone can do it,” Zoeliner said.

Despite not being able to teach her younger sister, Lia has been training another potential competitor. A mutual friend of the sisters had expressed interest in learning.

“She says she’s a natural; she just has to pick up speed,” Zoeliner said.

When it comes to race-walking, it is more than just the physical ability to compete. It also takes perseverance not only to perfect the technique, but also the will to compete at all.

“Finishing the race is the win,” said Zoeliner as she watched her sister making her way around the track. “Isn’t that life?”

Supervising editor is Samuel Hardiman.

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