Zoila Gomez is 35 years old and once was on the cusp of representing the United States in the Olympics, finishing fourth at the 2008 marathon trials. Then came this mysterious diaphragm problem that doctors – and Gomez sought out at least six – could not diagnose.
One insisted the issue was a broken rib.
Frustrated, Gomez quit running competitively for two years, missed it, returning to the starting line Jan. 18, 2015 in Phoenix at Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona. She had not run a marathon in three years.
“Realistically,” says Gomez, who lives in Alamosa, Colo., “I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to handle (the distance), from the health perspective.”
Handle the 26.2 miles, she did, winning in exactly 2 hours, 46 minutes. To qualify for the 2016 U.S. women’s marathon trials, which would be her third straight appearance at the event, athletes must run 2:43 or faster. The trials will be in Los Angeles.
Gomez moved from Charcas, Mexico, to Costa Mesa, just south of Los Angeles, when she was 16. Five siblings live in L.A., plus nieces and nephews. Gomez is on the hunt for a fast marathon course to earn that qualifier. She longs to tour L.A. by foot on Feb. 13, 2016, the date of the 2016 trials.
“My nieces, they look up to me,” says Gomez. “They brag about auntie. ‘Auntie’s a great runner. Auntie’s this, auntie’s that.’ They’ve never seen me run. I want to impress them.”
But that’s not why Gomez was so giddy about her performance that Sunday morning in the desert. It was much simpler than that. Imagine being a talented painter and suddenly your hands go numb and you can no longer hold a brush. Or you’re a brilliant mathematician, but in a flash your mind turns to mush and you can’t multiply 2×3, much less compute algorithms.
After being robbed of a gift, a gift that gave her profound satisfaction, Gomez could run again, in competition, pain free.
“I really, really missed that,” Gomez says. “In my 35 years of life, I think that’s the only thing that’s been taken away from me. To get it back was like, ‘Wow, I can run the distance.’ You can only think onward and upward from there.”
There can be few athletes with a better back story than Gomez. Raised in Mexico, she’s one of 16 children. Loses her spleen in a car accident at 14. Moves to Costa Mesa at 16 to better her life. Doesn’t attend school for a year, focusing instead on learning English at an adult education center. (She now teaches English to Hispanic women.)
P.E. teacher suggests she run track after spotting Zoila lapping students in class. Helps Costa Mesa High win a state cross country title. Goes to community college, wins four state titles.
Transfers to Adams State, made famous by Joe Vigil and Deena Drossin (now Kastor), and wins Division II national titles, ranging from the mile to the 10K. Becomes a U.S. citizen in 2005.
Gomez flirted with making the U.S. Olympic team at the 2008 marathon trials, finishing fourth in 2:33:53, missing the Olympics by 73 seconds.
Initially, missing the Olympics by one spot didn’t faze Gomez.
“Until that point, it was my best race, my best marathon,” she says. “Everything went my way. It was just too good to be true.”
Then she attended the awards banquet that night. Sitting on the table was a postcard of the women who finished first, second and third, the women who were Beijing bound – Kastor, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and Blake Russell.
“For thirty seconds,” recalls Gomez, “I just stared at that picture. I had this feeling. That could have been mer. Then, it went away. I was happy.”
Then came the diaphragm scare. She was one mile into a run later in 2008 when it struck the first time.
“I stopped and I had never stopped a run in my life,” she says. “I could hardly breathe. I didn’t know what was wrong with me.”
For about a year, the pain disappeared. Then it came back and started returning more regularly.
“If my diaphragm were to talk to me, this is what it would say,” says Gomez. “‘You know, this is enough (running). I’m here to stay. I’m not going anywhere. You better slow down.’ I couldn’t deny (the pain).”
She quit competitive running in 2012 and became an assistant coach at Adams State.
But last summer she decided she didn’t want to coach the rest of her life. This is a woman with an intense need to give back. She’s a mentor for In The Arena, which connects athletes to counsel youths.
“I see myself working with kids for the rest of my life,” she says.
The girl who came to the United States unable to speak English wants to earn a master’s in counseling, then a doctorate.
“I would be older,” she says, “but I think I can do it.”
And she wants to make one more run at the Olympics. At the 2012 women’s marathon trials, she finished 33rd in 2:38:37. Her diaphragm pain returned that day, about 16 miles into the race. She had to pull back.
The pain still returns, regularly, once a month.
“Around my period,” she says.
But she’s only 35. You don’t want to be 45, 55, waking up in the middle of the night asking yourself, “Could I have gone to the Olympics?”
So she’ll try to run that 2:43 qualifier later in 2015. If she does, she plans to line up at the trials in Los Angeles, in front of all those nieces and nephews.
“I’ll try to finish as high as possible,” says Gomez. “I tell you this, I don’t want to finish 33rd.”