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LITTLE LYNETTE: SHE'S WINNING, IMPROVING AND GROWING UP - AND SHE SAYS RUNNING IS STILL `A BLAST'

For years she was a novelty on the Utah running scene, a tiny somber-faced girl with wide blue eyes, running in grownup road races. She was a curious sight, this grade school girl with the knobby knees and pencil-thin arms, running in a forest of adults, but curiosity quickly turned to admiration when she not only went the distance but beat many of the adults, as well. Inevitably, curiosity soon gave way to concern and dire predictions of burnout.

Alas, little Lynette Petersen, a saavy veteran at the tender ageof 14, is still running today, not to mention winning and improving. Competing for Bingham High School - on loan from Oquirrh Hills Middle School - she has survived her freshman year of high school competition this season with only four losses, all to seniors.

Along the way, Petersen, who is young even by freshman standards (she won't turn 15 until October), has set personal records of 2:16.9 for 800 meters, 5:00.02 for 1,600 meters - the third fastest ever by a Utah prep and, factoring in the altitude adjustment, one of the 10 fastest prep times in the country this season - and 11:10 for 3,200 meters. She also has beaten everyone who's anyone in Utah prep distance running, and twice she has swept the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at major invitationals.

This weekend, Petersen, who last fall won the 4A state cross country championships, will attempt to repeat her triple at the 4A state track and field championships in Provo. If she succeeds, who knows, by the time she finishes her prep career she might very well have collected an unheard of 16 state championships.

In the meantime, some college recruiters aren't content to wait that long. Already UCLA, Vanderbilt and Hawaii have sent her letters. This for a girl whose bedroom wall is still covered with pictures of kittens. Oklahoma State recently called Bingham High requesting Petersen's address, only to be asked by a school official, "Do you know she's just a freshman?" No. They'll get back to her in a couple of years.

Some wonder if Petersen will be around that long. There have been enough burnout cases in running and tennis that there is a knee-jerk reaction toward age-group athletes. Petersen has been running competitively since she was seven years old - half her life - and many observers wonder if all the miles, all the races and the pressure, will take their toll, mentally and physically. To wit:

- I think it's to her detriment that she's been running so long," says Olympic distance runner Paul Cummings, who coaches fulltime now. "I doubt she'll get much better. I'd say she's got less than a one percent chance. That's based on what I've seen in the sport. But I hope I'm wrong."

- "It's hard to imagine that she'll keep it up," says Bob Wood, a former collegiate coach who once coached Petersen. "I'm amazed that she's still doing it, and that she's doing it well. She might be the exception. Maybe she won't get burned out."

- "Right now it looks like she's going to continue to improve, and that she'll be a very fine college prospect," says Pat Shane, BYU's woman's distance coach. "But you just don't know. I've seen a lot of young girls who were good who didn't improve."

- "I am worried about burnout," says Ed Murrell, another of Petersen's former coaches and the head coach of the Cottonwood High girl's track team. "As long as they keep it fun and keep it all in perspective and think long-term, she'll do fine."

If nothing else, Petersen's current coach, Jeff Arbogast, seems bent on keeping it fun, and on preserving her obvious talent. "Smile!" he shouts to her during races, trying to brighten her habitually stern race face. "Just have fun," he tells her. Arbogast could take his lumps for running Petersen in four events almost every meet, but he tells her to run only to win and warns her to slow down when she is running unnecessarily fast.

As for Petersen's training, it is on the light side, all the better for her longevity. She runs only 25 to 30 miles a week - about half of what most distance runners log. The most she's ever done is 42, which bodes well for the future (imagine a mature Petersen with a solid distance base). It is significant that Petersen has never had a running-related injury.

"We're never going to push her," Arbogast has promised Lynette's father, Val.

All this notwithstanding, Petersen's parents can't attend a track meet or road race without well-meaning people warning them about the perils of burnout. Says Val, "I have a lot of people asking me, `Do you make her run? Does she like it?' They tell me `Be sure not to let her do too much.' Coaches want to know if we're pushy, if she still likes it and if she's burned out."

"The thing people don't realize is just how determined Lynette is," says his wife, Ruth.

Who knows the source of motivation and determination, but from the beginning Petersen has had both. She walked at seven months. She spent one entire day getting on and falling off a bicycle until, with blistered hands, she had mastered it, by herself. She was four. And then one day, all of seven years old, she saw her father, a regular jogger, going to a road race. She pleaded to run the race with him. He refused, but promised her that if she trained she could run in the next one. She got up every morning at 6 and jogged with her father, then ran in the Riverton Town Days Fun Run. She's been running ever since.

Two years later her parents began to hire private coaches. "We could see she was good, and we didn't know anything about running," says Val. "We didn't want to do anything detrimental."

No one knew what to make of little Lynette at road races. She was barely 41/2 feet tall, rail thin - maybe 70 pounds - all legs, like a fawn, and she could run stride for stride with most of the adults. "How old are you?" runners asked her. Murrell recalls, "People thought it was cute, but then she earned their respect." Once, race officials were so astonished by Petersen's performance - she covered 5,000 meters in 18:54 at age 11 - that they thought she had jumped in the middle of the race. That is, until someone intervened and said, "Oh, that's Lynette."

All told, Petersen has run some 150 road races - all meticulously recorded in a notebook she keeps. She's won her age division 140 times and the women's division overall 50 times. On the track, in age-group national championship meets she has claimed two firsts, a second and a third. She routed the field in the junior national cross country championships in Reno last December.

And Petersen shows no signs of slowing or of waning enthusiasm. Says Finn Hansen, a local TAC official, "No one's pushing her. She wants to run."

David, Lynette's older brother (by a year), is another story. David once trained side by side with Lynette, but he has since given up the sport, at least for now. Some observers say it's burnout; the Petersens say it's a simple case of sibling rivalry. "I know that's the reason," says Val. "People ask him, `How come you don't run as well as your sister.' It gets to him." David will try track again next year.

Lynette, a sweet, mild girl with olive skin, blonde hair and a sprinkle of freckles, says simply, "Running is something I'm good at and it's fun to do." But there are things she misses. She stares out the back window of the family home in Riverton where her white horse stands idly. "I can't wait to ride this summer," she says. She also sacrifices swimming, church camps and parties for her running, which demands so much of her attention that one non-runner friend joined a summer track program so they could be together.

Still, Petersen, the sixth of seven kids, manages a 3.5 grade point average, plays piano for her seminary class, aspires to play on the school basketball team and dreams dreams.

"I want to be in the '96 Olympics," she says innocently. "It used to be '92, but my coach says I won't be strong enough then."

In the meantime, more than burnout, what some observers fear for Lynette - and other young girl runners - is the onset of adolescence.

"Physically, she's immature," says Shane. "When a girl changes to a woman a lot of physical changes take place of course. It changes the strength-to-weight ratio. It's less efficient. There's more body fat." The next couple of years will tell. Petersen, a lanky 5-foot-41/2, 100 pounds, has added two inches and 15 pounds since last fall.

Little Lynette is growing up.

So, she's asked finally, are you having fun? "I'm having a blast," she says. And, yes, she's smiling.

*****

(Chart)

Faster, faster

Lynette Petersen's progression at one mile

Age 1 mile

7 6:25

8 5:43

9 5:47

10 5:47

11 5:38

12 5:07

13 5:02

14 5:02