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World Masters Athletics Pacfic Association "Ones to Watch":

Irene Obera

By Bob Burns

 

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.