April 07, 2023 5 min read 4 Comments
Norma and a piece of her art. Photo courtesy Surface Design Association (New England). More pictures at the end of the story.
By Ray Glier
Her father was a concert pianist. Her mother a singer. Norma Minkowitz doesn’t seem to have the latent athleticism that would lead to a world-record in the 400.
Maybe not, but she has a virtue much more vital.
It is what scientists label “internal locus of control”, which is a personal orthodoxy that outcomes are within your control and determined by your hard work, or decisions. It is a brazen belief that “I got this”, which is how Norma ignored the soreness of a Baker’s Knee and the anxiety of her first race on a high-banked indoor track and set that world record on February 25 in Staten Island, N.Y.
Minkowitz, a nationally-known artist whose works in fiber art are scattered in more than 30 museums, went 1:50.99 to break the W85 indoor markset by Italy’s Emma Mazzenga in 2019 (1:51.89).
Her 800 that same day—4:33.38—is the best in the U.S. indoors for 2023 (W85). And, just to be clear, there are plenty of women over 80 still running around the world.
Norma turned 85 last October and the races in the USATF New York Open & Masters Championships were her first-ever as a dues-paying member of USA Track & Field. She had never competed indoors.
Perhaps it is a lifetime of competitiveness and the habit of over-achieving that helped Norma hold it together that Saturday with a sore knee in unfamiliar surroundings, and on that “precarious” high-banked track.
“I’ve always wanted to win and I don’t know if that is a good trait or a bad trait,” Minkowitz said. “When we were kids having races I always wanted to win. It’s just the way I am.”
Minkowitz is gearing up for more wins. She is entered in the 2023 National Senior Games in Pittsburgh looking to follow-up on the four gold medals she took home in the 2022 NSG in Ft. Lauderdale. She won gold in the 400, 800, 1500, and 5K and broke records in the 1500, 400, and 800 that had stood for 25 years.
It’s just running, right? She’s fit for 85 years old. She doesn’t have a lot of wear and tear because she didn’t join the competitive running crusade until 2019.
But it’s not just running.
Some people see obstacles and reflexively burn right through them, as Norma did with that 400 at the Feb. 25 meet. The starter’s gun went off and she said she forgot about the knee and didn’t let the high banks become too daunting.
Minkowitz doesn’t let alibis stack up in front of her, which includes her age. That internal locus of control surely played into the world record.
“I’m 85? I don’t feel 85. I feel younger than that,” she said. “I just ran.”
Norma set herself up for the world record. She works with a trainer who barked back at her one day “So get a raincoat” when she said it was raining before a training run.
Minkowitz runs outside at her home in Connecticut where it can be 20 degrees after lunch when she laces up her shoes. Her trainer has her do repeats, run as fast as he can for 15 seconds, walk 90 seconds, then run 15 seconds. Norma would do that 15 times. Another HIIT workout is running 50 seconds as fast as she is able and walk two minutes and do that 10 times. Norma, remember, is 85 and works out five or six times a week.
Norma's success is due to more than the training drills. She was brought up in a culture of nurture and achievement in a Bronx neighborhood. Norma went to a high school for gifted children and then the renowned New York City art and architecture school, The Cooper Union.
Norma learned to crochet at her mother’s side when she was 7 and you achieve in that encouraging environment. And as people explore and achieve they become fearless, like Norma in that 400, like Norma in her fitness training at 85, and like Norma in her art.
What kind of person, but a fearless one, can put their soul on display for thousands of art patrons?
She is unafraid in her artwork to explore the depths of her soul and, at the same time, force the patron to peer into their soul as they study the work.Her fiber art of crochet and vessels can use, among many other things, haunting ravens. One piece called Child of The Night is all black.
Minkowitz described her style to her local media outlet “06880” this way: “It has a dark edge about life, mortality and human nature.”
Norma may have described the high-banked track as “precarious” but she is an unfearing needle artist who has used hog gut, beads, metallic rivets, twigs, resin, wire, thin thread, and wood to sculpt her remarkable work. But it is tedious work and time consuming with the myriad of details.
“Running is like a miracle because you, like, break free and you're running and you're using your body and then at the end of the day, you really want to sit down and do the tedious work,” Norma said. “You know, it's a wonderful combination. It’s just perfect for me.”
So, you see, it is not just genes and it is not just running. It’s her response to adversity.
There were some other factors that helped Norma achieve that world record. The debilitating part of running with Baker’s Knee is after the knee is drained, not before. Minkowitz had the knee drained following the race and is still not running six weeks later as she recovers.
Norma also had some sideline help Feb. 25 from Noah Perlis, one of the more veteran Masters track runners in the New York City area. Among other instructions, Perlis shouted out when she could duck down to the inside of the track after leaving the bank, which surely saved some time.
There was also the woman who fell on the banked track. Norma saw that calamity and was cautious as she steered her way off the banks. “They started me up on the high part for some reason, I didn’t want to fall,” she said. She kept her focus and her feet, which is another example of controlling what she could control, and the world record was hers.
“I was shocked,” she said of the record. “And thrilled.”
We shouldn’t be shocked. The ingredients are there for many of us to achieve. We just have discover our own internal locus of control, like Norma Minkowitz.
Norma on medal stand after world record race.
Norma's work is in the Smithsonian, among other museums.
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