The Iron Gaucho went the distance

July 7, 2006

The Iron Gaucho went the distance

Mark Patton June 17, 2006 6:50 AM UCSB is not the best place to breed toughness. The campus is too serene. The climate is too temperate. The student community is too distractingly festive.

The ocean that laps at UCSB's backside lulls you right to sleep.

Some of its coaches travel far to find Gauchos with grit. Chris Devine, the toughest player on the basketball team, was recruited out of Alaska. Coach Bob Williams' most recent addition is Weber State transfer Nedim Pajevic, a 6-foot-9 and 235-pounder who emigrated from war-torn Bosnia as a child.

Williams feels pretty sure about his toughness: Pajevic's left leg is tattooed with shrapnel scars.

But the toughest Gaucho on campus probably doesn't even weigh 115 pounds, sopping wet. She even turned anemic this spring when her iron supply became seriously depleted.

And yet, her will remained all iron.

Stephanie Rothstein proved she was the toughest Gaucho of all during the 10,000-meter run at last week's NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Sacramento.

She wasn't sure she could even finish a 10K anymore. A normal score for a person's iron content runs between 12 and 180, she said, and she was nearly running on empty: A month ago, she tested out with a 5.

"At first, I thought I'd be happy to just get to nationals, with all the injuries and these other things," Rothstein said. "That, plus almost not being able to even stay at UCSB."

The death of her father, James, and subsequent failure of his microchip business had seemed to doom her future at UCSB two years ago. Her mother, Joan, could no longer afford the mortgage on their Arizona home, let alone Stephanie's tuition.

But a local family read of Rothstein's plight and funded a scholarship for her just before she had to withdraw from school.

She thought of that as she prepared for the biggest race of her life, popping iron pills and struggling through her workouts.

"I decided that just finishing wasn't good enough," she said. "I had worked so hard to make All-American, and so that was what would be good enough."

Rothstein took one final test of her iron before leaving for Sacramento, but she decided not to hear the result. She knew it couldn't be good, and it wasn't. She had improved her score by just a point, to a 6.

She could feel it, anyway, halfway through last week's NCAA race when she nearly stopped. She kept going only after seeing coach Pete Dolan waiting for her at the end of each lap.

"It was not a normal hurt," Rothstein said. "This was a hurt I didn't know. It hurt so much that I wanted to give up.

"So many things went through my head. Every time I'd get another lap, I'd tell myself, 'Just get to Pete again. Just get to Pete.' "

She also drew strength from seeing her family in the stands: her mom, as well as brothers Jamie and Terry, who had surprised her at her hotel that morning.

"There were a couple of other people -- alumni, perhaps, and people who knew Pete -- who were showing up at every turn," Rothstein said. "They kept yelling, 'Go UCSB!' "

Three miles into the race, she decided that she wouldn't quit, no matter what happened.

A mile later, she found herself battling two others for 12th place. And then she heard Dolan yell, "This is your time!"

He knew her will better than anyone.

And so Rothstein began picking off one runner after another. With three laps to go, she was neck-and-neck in a battle for ninth. But she needed to get to eighth to become an All-American, and the next runner was still 100 meters ahead.

The crowd noise had grown to a crescendo by this time, but the loudest voice she heard was her own: "I was telling myself, 'OK, this is it!' "

As she pulled away from the others, sprinting toward All-America, Dolan looked down at his watch in disbelief: Rothstein had just run the final 400 meters in just 71 seconds.

When she crossed the finish line in eighth place, she did something she never does: she collapsed to her knees.

"That was all I had left," she said.

So where did that toughness come from? The memory of a supportive father, who she keeps in her thoughts every time she runs? The love of her family? The belief of her coaches, or the cheers of people that she doesn't really even know?

Maybe it also came from the support she got from a family that didn't really know her, either.

"I haven't talked to them since they did that for me, helping me stay at UCSB," Rothstein said. "I just hope they read about this.

"I really wanted them to know that I made the best of what they gave me."

Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: