December 16, 2023 6 min read 4 Comments
Photo: Liz after her world record run in Greensboro.
*Senior athletes like Liz, an elementary school P.E. teacher, give back to the youngest generation and it will be felt for years to come.
*Liz has picked herself up over and over from track mishaps and health issues and turned herself into a world-record holder.
*After running only in Florida for almost four years, she showed up big on a national stage in 2023 with a 1:07.23 in the 400.
By Ray Glier
Liz Deak, 65, seemed to come out of nowhere in July, 2023 in Greensboro, N.C., when she set a world record in the 400 meters. It was her first appearance ever at the USA Track & Field Masters Outdoors Championships. She had not run outside the state of Florida since 2019.
For anyone who wondered that sweltering day in July where she came from, which included Geezer Jock, Liz came from The Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. She came from surgeries. She came from the doctor’s office. She came from radiation. She came from the ER and she came from the orthopedist. She came from lying in bed with one serious illness after another.
Deak has had breast cancer, and its accompanying surgery, as well as thyroid cancer and salivary gland cancer, and a horrific fall on the track, all making it difficult to establish consistency in training and build a resume. When she pulled a hamstring in her left leg, and partially tore the right hamstring off the bone in a 2019 race, Deak had to be taken by Uber to the hospital and was out of action for six months. In 2022, she had herniated discs in her back and was knocked out of competition for several months. Amidst all that was a torn rotator cuff.
That's where Liz Deak came from. All that.
What has added to her obscureness on the national circuit is that Liz is only identifiable as an athlete by her angular and tall physique and consistently powerful strides down the track. She is otherwise a quiet light who takes solace in prayer. You don't hear her much.
It's good to root for Liz because, like many Geezer Jocks, she is so mindful of others. She had to leave a room of women in a cancer support group because she was in tears. The women were talking about the anguish of having their hair fall out. Liz had a full head of hair and wondered what business she had to talk about her issues to the other women, never mind that her kidneys were a mess because of repeated cancer treatments.
"I've had to go back to Mayo a couple of times, but I'm healthy now, I consider myself healthy," Liz said. "Nothing is going to stop me from competing."
If all the calamities from 2008 to 2022 couldn't stop her, Deak is going to be hard to stop, indeed.
On a rainy October day, Deak, a physical education teacher in Cocoa Beach, Fla., needed to fall back on an indoor lesson for her elementary school children. The 2024 Paris Olympics are approaching so Liz decided to teach on the origins of the Olympics and also talk about the meshing of goal-setting with the joys of running and fitness.
Liz talked about the various events in the Olympics, and then popped in a video of a 400-meter race to show children how the athletes line up by lane assignments.
The children, aged 5 to 12, immediately recognized their teacher on the screen running on the track.
“Go Coach,” came the shrill chorus of voices. The kids were gleeful to see their teacher out of context and on the TV.
Liz won the race, which was at the USA Track & Field Masters Outdoors Championships. The children’s cheers filled the classroom as she came across the finish line. Liz said her students have become even more excited about running and exercise since they saw the video. Some have set goals for what they want to accomplish on a modest school track team she started.
“Some teachers use running as a punishment,” Deak said. “I would never do that. We turn running into fun activities.”
It had taken three months, but the children also found out their “Coach Deak” was pretty good at this running thing. What the children watched that rainy day was Liz setting a world record (1:07.23) in the 400-meter race in the Women’s 65-69 age cohort.
Their teacher will likely finish 2023 No. 1 in the world in the 200 and 400.
Most important, the children got a lesson from an older person in striving and reaching goals.
Liz was not all together unheralded before she arrived in Greensboro last July. After all, she had been very good at Florida state senior meets and the 2022 National Senior Games in Miramar, Fla.
Deak was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in the 400 in 2021 and 2022 (W60-64), but that was competing in just two sanctioned races in 2021 and five in 2022, respectively, all in Florida.
The Greensboro race was her biggest stage and she didn’t miss the moment, even while wearing 10-year old men’s middle distance running shoes for the race.
A lot of name recognition came in those 67 seconds on July 20 in Greensboro.
Liz went 1:07.23 to break Karla Del Grande’s previous world-record mark of 1:08.08. She has marveled from a distance over Del Grande’s poise and success and wants to meet her fellow Canadian.
At the finish, Liz had no idea she set a world record. She knew she won, but she was not aiming for Karla’s record and had no expectations.
“Crazy,” she said of herself setting a world mark.
The craziness marched on in the Florida Senior Games last Sunday as Deak blazed 1:07.89 to win the gold in the 400. Liz also ran 29.58 seconds in the 200 for gold. She took silver in the 100.
Liz has planted herself firmly on the world masters radar for Sweden and World Masters Athletics Championships in 2024. Her school principal is behind the “once-in-a-lifetime chance” and now Liz, a public school teacher, has to scrape together funds for the trip.
Just so you know, Deak was whisked away to drug testing immediately after the 400 in Greensboro, which is obligatory with a world record.
Her world-record stood up. USATF Masters named Deak Female Athlete of the Year for her age group (65-69).
It is all utterly improbable considering her health challenges, which includes a bout with Type 1 diabetes and now osteoporosis in a hip. Doctors said to Liz, “No more high jumping” and she is going to heed their warnings before a bone cracks and it stops the magic.
Once before, Deak had visions of magic on a world stage…as a kid dreaming of the Olympics.
Liz grew up in the Toronto area on a tobacco farm. Running around the block for her was running five miles around “a block” of crops. She cherished her time running and, as a child, was spinning eight-minute miles. When Deak attended the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, she strived even harder as an athlete.
Liz was a rower and on the varsity track team at the University of Toronto. That’s where she met her husband, Zoltan Deak, who was a nationally-ranked high jumper and 400-meter runner on the national track team.
They moved to Florida 10 years ago, five years into her first cancer diagnosis. The doctors and staff at Mayo, 161 miles north of Cocoa Beach, have stayed in contact with Coach Deak to deal with flare-ups in her cancer and her falls. “They have been a blessing,” Liz said.
Life is a blessing, she says over and over. Her dreams as a child of participating in the Olympics did not work out, but Sweden and the WMA is a worthy prize, if she can get there. She hopes she can excite her children next fall by teaching another rainy day lesson on track, perhaps with her winning a world championship medal.
The lesson for the kids and the rest of us starts like this:
“It’s about getting back up and dusting yourself off," says Coach Deak. "They have to set their own goals, make a plan, and everyone is different so go at your pace. Just start by jogging between telephone poles on the street. Start with that and look at what you have accomplished, not what you have not done.”
Liz (far left) and other medals have some fun at National Senior Games.
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