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Heinz Piotrowski, left, and Irene Piotrowski after she set four Canadian records in 1964.

BC Spirts Hall of Fame

Irene Macijauskas Piotrowski could run 100 metres in the time it took to spell her name.

Ms. Piotrowski, who has died at 79, was Canada’s top woman sprinter in the 1960s, a two-time Olympian who won medals at the Commonwealth and Pan American Games.

A powerful figure on the track, she set a national record by running 100m in 11.3 seconds at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, a lifetime best and a feat she accomplished twice in the same day.

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“I wasn’t what was considered the perfect physical specimen,” she told sportswriter Wendy Long in 1993. “I wasn’t tall. I was flat-footed with slightly bowed legs, a little heavy – certainly not slim.”

With an exotic feline visage to match her cheetah speed, the “good-looking, powerfully-built” runner with the Louis Brooks bob was called “Irene the Dream” and the “hustling housewife” by male sportswriters. The Washington Post published a photograph of her applying lipstick during a track meet, a reflection of male anxieties about the femininity of woman athletes.

She burst onto the track scene in 1963 at a Vancouver meet held days before her 22nd birthday when she was part of a team that set a new Canadian record for the 440-yard relay. She also finished second in the 100-yard dash.

While the farm girl had been on the track team at Moody High School in an agricultural community outside Vancouver, she was making her competitive debut at an age older than most.

Ms. Piotrowski (pronounced pee-uh-TROW-ski) was a newlywed teacher when asked to help coach an elementary school’s track team. She showed such great speed that other adults encouraged her to return to competition. Her husband, Heinz, a bartender at the swanky downtown University Club, became her coach.

Irena Maria Macijauskas (pronounced maht-SEE-aus-kas) was born on July 9, 1941, in Skaudvile, about 210 kilometres northwest of the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and near what was then the frontier with Nazi Germany, to the former Ona Maciulyte and Jonas Macijauskas, who were storekeepers. The couple, who had a son, had lost an infant daughter the previous year.

It was a treacherous time, as Irena was born shortly after Germany invaded and occupied the Baltic country, which had until only recently been occupied by the Soviet Union. The family, who were Christian, avoided the fate of the town’s Jewish population, which was rounded up and summarily executed.

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In 1944, as the Soviet Union’s Red Army once again advanced toward Lithuania, the family of four stuffed their belongings into three suitcases and fled by foot. It is part of family lore that they were saved when picked up by a truck headed to Germany. Her parents spent the remaining months of the war labouring in factories.

The family lived for three years in a displaced-persons camp in Kessel, during which another daughter was born.

An uncle sponsored the family to immigrate to Canada and they arrived in Halifax aboard the liner Aquitania on Jan. 9, 1948. After travelling across Canada by train, they settled in Port Coquitlam, B.C., where they started a small poultry farm.

While studying education at the University of British Columbia, the young athlete played for the school’s Senior-B basketball team while also serving as a spare for the Senior-A Thunderettes.

Ms. Piotrowski stretching in 1968.

BC Spirts Hall of Fame

In 1963, she won the provincial cross-country championship, a rare accomplishment for a sprinter. Her form on the track received criticism, as she showed neither a perfect stride nor graceful speed, instead calling on a gritty resolve and a powerful, churning style. At a pre-Olympic meet in the rain in Vancouver in 1964, she recovered from a slip at the start to race past Willye White, an American track star who would appear in five Olympics, to win the 100m by two strides in 11.4 seconds, establishing a Canadian record only two-tenths of a second slower than the world record.

At the Olympics in Tokyo, Ms. Piotrowski advanced to the semi-finals of the 100m before being eliminated. She also competed in the 200m.

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With more than 5,000 athletes at the Games, only 678 were women, including just 20 Canadians.

Her breakthrough on the international stage came at the Commonwealth Games in Jamaica in 1966, when she won a silver medal in the 100-yards and a bronze in the 220-yards.

Ms. Piotrowski was captain of the women’s track-and-field team at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg in 1967. She won a bronze medal in the 100m and a silver medal as the anchor of the 4-by-100m relay team.

After winning the 100m event at track meets in Norway and Sweden in 1968, Ms. Piotrowski was a rare medal hopeful for Canada at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. She twice ran the 100m in 11.3 seconds in qualification heats on Oct. 14, only to finish sixth in her semifinal heat the next day with a time of 11.5. She also competed in the 200m and the 4-by-100m relay.

One of her enduring memories of those games was a friendship struck with the American sprinter Tommie Smith, whose Black Power salute on the medal podium with teammate John Carlos led to their expulsion from the Olympic Village.

Persistent leg injuries hobbled Ms. Piotrowski throughout her career, finally forcing her into retirement in 1973, by which time she had been a four-time national champion in the 100m and two-time champion in the 200m.

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In 1993, Ms. Piotrowski was inducted into the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame.

Life away from the track lacked both fame and glamour at a time when there were no endorsement opportunities and coaching jobs for women were limited.

She quit working as a teacher to join romantic and business partner Robert Sanders at his Robert’s Rings & Things, a jewellery shop. In 1982, Mr. Sanders was ambushed in the underground parking garage of his apartment building. He was shot and killed by a .22 calibre rifle in which a potato had been used as a makeshift silencer. A man robbed him of a briefcase filled with jewellery before fleeing in the dead man’s 1978 silver Trans Am.

Ms. Piotrowski continued to operate the store for many years after the murder. She also became active in a Los Angeles-based foundation promoted by the Church of Scientology, eventually moving to California.

Ms. Piotrowski, a resident of Hollywood, died of pancreatic cancer in Los Angeles on Aug. 13. Her first marriage ended in divorce and she was predeceased by her second husband, Stan Roger, a Lithuanian-born electrician who died in 1989, aged 51. She leaves a sister and three brothers.

While celebrated as a runner, she eagerly embraced a regimen of weight training, which once led to a photo shoot in Iron Man Magazine alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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More remarkable, perhaps, was her performance at the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous in Whitehorse in 1974 when, on a lark, she managed to stagger the requisite 50 feet along a snowy downtown street with five 100-pound sacks on her back in the flour-packing competition. She was crowned the woman’s champion. Her time was not recorded.

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