Hall of Famer Irene Obera comes out of retirement, claims W80 WR

Irene was elected to USATF Masters Hall of Fame in first class: 1996.

World champion and sprint record-setter Irene Obera has retired at least twice. But after turning 80 in December, the Hall of Famer made a big mistake. She glanced at the record books. “I can do that!” I hear her saying. And Saturday at the famed Cal Berkeley track, she demolished the listed W80 world record for 200 meters, becoming the oldest woman to go sub-40 by clocking 38.10 into a slight wind. (See results here.) The mark won’t be recognized because the all-comers meet appears not to be USATF-sanctioned. But it means Irene has plenty in the tank. And just to prove her fitness, she also ran the 60 in 10.84 (under the listed indoor WR of 11.31) and the 400 in 1:42.40 (off the listed outdoor WR of 1:31.21. So nice job, Irene. Welcome back! (And thanks, fellow long sprinter Larry Barnum, for spotting the marks!)

Sacramento Bee shot of Irene winning W75 200 at Sacramento worlds.

Here’s a great story on Irene just before 2011 Sacramento worlds:

In a year or two she might change her mind – it’s happened before – but Irene Obera insists the upcoming World Masters Athletics Championships in Sacramento will be the final meet of her illustrious career.

“When I retire, which will be after this meet, I’m going to concentrate on tennis,” Obera said.

Retirement means different things to different people. To Obera, 77, a retired teacher and administrator, it might mean playing tennis, or bowling in a weekly league, or renewing her season’s ticket for Stanford women’s basketball, or all of the above.

Six years ago, it meant returning to the track after a six-year hiatus to compete in the WMA Outdoor Championships in San Sebastian, Spain.

This time around, the proximity of the USA Masters and WMA Championships to her home in Fremont pulled her out of retirement one more time.

“I couldn’t stay retired with the nationals in my backyard,” she said. “With the world meet also in Sacramento, I decided to keep going.”

At last year’s nationals, Obera won the 100 and 200 meters in the W75-79 age group, setting U.S. records (16.26 and 35.26 seconds) in both events. She plans to tune up for the July 6-17 WMA Championships by competing in the Pacific Association masters meet on June 11 in Folsom.

“I enjoy competing, and you can’t compete if you don’t train,” Obera said. “My training has been spotty so far, but I know how it usually works. All of a sudden, ‘Boom,’ it comes back and my times drop.

“I’m still planning on winning, and I call winning first, not second.”

These will be the 19th WMA Outdoor Championships, and Obera will have competed in 13 of them. She has won 24 gold medals in the 100, 200, 400 and 4 x 400 relay events, setting numerous world age-group records.

Obera came to the sport late but quickly made up for lost time. While attending Chico State in the 1950s, she was member of the school’s field hockey, softball and basketball teams. One summer during her college years, she tried out for a women’s fast-pitch softball team that wound up playing a game against the Hollywood All-Stars, an outfit that included Frank Sinatra.

She was teaching physical education in the Bay Area when she entered her first track meet, an all-comers affair in Burlingame. She won the 100 meters and found her athletic calling.

Three years later, she qualified for the 1960 U.S. Olympic Trials and barely missed advancing to the 100-meter final won by Wilma Rudolph. An injury sidelined her in 1964, but she qualified for the Olympic Trials again in 1968 – at age 35.

Several years later, well into her career as an educator in the Berkeley Unified School District, Oberta entered the 1975, World Veterans Championships in Toronto, the forerunner of the WMA Championships. Obera placed third in the W40 100-meter dash. Two years later, at the world meet in Gothenburg, Sweden, she won her first gold medal in the W45 100 meters.

Her finest WMA showing came at the 1995 event in Buffalo, N.Y., where she won the 100, 200 and 400 and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4 x 400 relay. Obera set W60 records in the 100 (13.51), 400 (67.80) and long relay (5:14.94) in Buffalo.

She won an additional five gold medals at the 1997 and 1999 WMA Championships before retiring for real … for a few years, at least. In 2005, Obera planned to attend the WMA Championships in Spain as a spectator. She decided to compete and claimed a pair of silver medals.

Obera was named to the USA Masters Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1996. She is also a member of the Chico State Hall of Fame and was honored – along with Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and Jackie Joyner-Kersee – by the Women’s Sports Foundation at its annual “Salute to Women in Sports” dinner in 2006.

Honors aren’t what keep her running, however. Obera paused for several seconds when asked to rank her top honors.

“Once you meet a goal, you just set another one and keep going and going,” Obera said. “The thing I’ve always enjoyed the most is the competition. I just want to do my best. If you get out there and get beat, that’s fine, but I’m not going to give it to them.”

She currently trains three or four times a week, usually at Chabot College or UC Berkeley.

“At my age, I need an all-weather track,” she said. “If I need two days off, I take two days off. Right now I’m focusing on quality, not quantity.”

She expects some of her bowling buddies to come to Sacramento to watch her run. In addition to tennis and bowling, she joined a coed softball team a couple of years back but was taken aback by the

“I was sprinting toward home plate and tried to take out the catcher,” Obera said. “They told me, ‘You can’t do that.’ That’s how I was taught to play.”

From 1958 to 1994, Obera worked in the Berkeley Unified School District as a teacher, department chair, dean, counselor and principal. Her e-mail address – isprint94@att.net – is a mixture of avocation and vocation.

“I needed something I could remember, and that was the year I retired,” Obera said.

Retirement announcement notwithstanding, she might still be sprinting at 94.

And here’s what I reported in 2008:

In the May issue of National Masters News, buried in a story on page 15, is some monumental news — worthy of Page One: “For the women on the track (at the Bay Area Senior Games at Stanford), Irene Obera, 75, ran a 16.79 into a headwind to win the W75 100.” That’s it. One sentence.

But what a revelation! Back in August 2005, Irene told a newspaper reporter up in the San Francisco Bay Area that San Sebastian worlds would be her final meet. In fact, her last listing on mastersrankings.com was for worlds, when she ran 15.12 and 33.65 to top the W70 lists.

Guess she’s stoked by the 2009 National Senior Games coming to the Bay Area. She couldn’t stay away from the sport that gave her national fame (in SI’s Faces in the Crowd) as long ago as 1962. Welcome back, Irene!

BTW, if Irene’s 16.79 is properly documented and submitted, it’s a potential American record, beating the listed USATF age-group recod of 16.87 by Polly Clarke in August 1985. The listed W75 world record is 15.91 by Germany’s Paula Schneiderhan in 1997.

At the moment, Irene isn’t listed in the 2008 outdoor rankings for “O.”

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January 20, 2014

9 Responses

  1. Marcus battle - January 20, 2014

    Hey ken this new format
    Has no color or punch
    The old made read you everyday

  2. Liz Palmer - January 20, 2014

    I got to race against Irene a few years ago. What struck me is her beautiful form as illustrated by the picture in this article — she is amazing.

  3. Peter Taylor - January 20, 2014

    Following up on what Liz said, Irene Obera is “The Truth.” What a stylist, and I am so glad she has entered the 60, 200, and 400 at Boston indoor nationals. Nothing like having a superstar competing to give some electricity to the proceedings.

  4. Ken Stone - January 20, 2014

    Hi, Marcus

    The desktop format is still available. But if you use a tablet exclusively, yeah — it’s kind of stripped down, like a smartphone app. I’ll see if others want a return to desktop as the default view.

  5. Christa Bortignon - January 21, 2014

    Happy birthday, Christel

  6. Matt McCubbins - January 23, 2014

    I think there is a link for “View Full Site” at the bottom of the new format on mobile devices which takes you to the old (full) format. You just have to scroll down a bit to find it.

  7. Cornell - January 23, 2014

    Simply Amazing!!

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