As a girl of 15, Sylvie Ruegger composed a note to herself in pencil on a page of a coiled notebook. In a schoolgirl’s block letters, she wrote “My goal – to make it to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and win for Canada.”
She folded the note into a small slip before stuffing it into a crack between floorboards in the bedroom of the family farmhouse in rural Ontario. The opening was then covered by masking tape, which she coloured the same dull grey as the rest of the worn floor.
The teenager, who had watched the 1976 Summer Olympics down the road in Montreal on her family’s small black-and-white television, dared not show her audacious pledge to anyone.
As it turned out, the young woman did not immediately fulfill her ambition. Canada boycotted the Moscow Olympics, but four years later in Los Angeles, she ran in the first Olympic women’s marathon. The unheralded student surprised the running world by challenging for a medal before finishing a respectable eighth. It was only her second marathon. Her first had been to qualify for the Canadian team three months earlier.
Ms. Ruegger, who has died at 58, went on to establish a record in the marathon for Canadian women by winning the 1985 Houston (Tex.) Marathon in 2 hours 28 minutes 36 seconds. The standard survived all challenges for more than a quarter-century.
Silvia Rosemarie Ruegger – who was nicknamed Sylvie – was born on Feb. 23, 1961, in Oshawa, Ont., about 30 kilometres west of the family farm outside Newtonville. She was one of four children born to Ruth and Ulrich Ruegger. An early taste of celebrity came when her photograph appeared on the front page of the weekly Canadian Statesman newspaper in 1974 after she won a $30 prize in an essay-writing contest.
Students arriving for morning classes at Clarke High School in nearby Newcastle often saw their fellow student already on the track running lap after lap. After sunset, the young woman ran on isolated county concession roads, her forward path lit by headlights of a car driven slowly behind her by her mother.
In July, 1979, a year before the scheduled opening of the Moscow Olympics, the runner lost a 3,000-metre race in France in a photo finish to fellow Canadian Veronica Poryckyi of Sudbury. Both runners were joined by four other runners on Canada’s cross-country team for an international meet in Paris in March, 1980. In the end, Canada joined some other countries in boycotting the Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
The 5-foot-5, 119-pound runner enrolled at the University of Guelph, where she enjoyed a perfect intercollegiate season in cross-country in 1980, winning all four events she entered, including the inaugural women’s national championship of the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (now U Sports). She would earn an honours science degree in human nutrition, as well as an arts degree in psychology, at the university.
Ms. Ruegger dropped out of track in 1981, as she felt she was not fast enough to defeat international competitors in the 3,000 metres, the longest women’s event. The addition of women’s marathon to the 1984 Summer Olympics schedule convinced her to return to competition. She stunned observers by winning the National Capital Marathon in Ottawa in a time of 2:30:37, the fastest ever recorded by a woman in a debut marathon.
An unorthodox training regimen was designed to build endurance.
“We would actually go beyond the marathon distance,” she told the author Mark Sutcliffe for his 2013 book, Why I Run. “We would go 30 miles in training. And at the 26-mile mark we would drop our training pace to race pace. At the point at which you would think, ‘Now we’re done,’ it’s ‘No, you’re not, you’re going to go even harder.’ ”
Ms. Ruegger arrived in Los Angeles as an unknown. The inaugural women’s Olympic marathon began with 49 runners at the start line at Santa Monica City College at 8 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1984. The Canadian recovered from a trip and a hard fall at one of the early water stations to catch up to a small pack chasing the leader, Joan Benoit of the United States.
As she felt her will flagging while running along a Los Angeles freeway, she recalled the words of her coach, Hugh Cameron, who said: “Imagine all of the training as deposits put into your bank account, and on race day morning go and make a complete withdrawal.” Earlier, the devout Christian had prayed for strength in the dorm room that housed athletes during the Games.
Joining her in the pack chasing Ms. Benoit were pioneering legends of women’s marathon, including Grete Waitz of Norway, whose career would include nine victories in the New York Marathon; Rosa Mota of Portugal, who would win three Boston Marathons and the Olympic gold medal in 1988; and, Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, who would win two Boston Marathons and four London Marathons.
Ms. Ruegger crossed the finish line at the Los Angeles Coliseum in eighth after completing the 42.195-kilometre course in 2:29:09. She missed a medal by 132 seconds.
Five months later, in Houston, in only her third marathon, Ms. Ruegger ran for 22 miles alongside Jacqueline Gareau before outpacing her fellow Canadian to establish a national time that would last 28 years.
Two weeks after that great triumph, Ms. Ruegger survived a car crash in wintry conditions in Guelph, Ont. She was ejected from her compact car, waking in a snowy ditch with a severe concussion. It took 28 stitches to close a gash on her head.
“I wasn’t wearing my seatbelt,” she said. “I’m thankful to be alive. I shouldn’t have come out alive.”
A long recuperation was followed by a series of nagging injuries, the most serious a stress fracture in her left foot causing her to change her gait, already notable for significant pronation.
She returned to form by winning a rain-soaked Pittsburgh Marathon in 1987.
Her Canadian mark was finally eclipsed by Lanni Marchant in winning the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2 hours 28 minutes flat on Oct. 13, 2013. Ms. Ruegger’s standard stood unmatched for 10,507 days.
On news of Ms. Ruegger’s death on Aug. 23, two years after a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, Ms. Marchant called her the matriarch of Canadian women’s distance runners, while thanking her for “inspiring a nation of girls to chase you.”
Ms. Ruegger leaves her brother, Daniel Ruegger, and sisters, Connie Mark and Veronica Robinson.
Ms. Ruegger was inducted into the University of Guelph Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Athletics Ontario Hall of Fame in 2014. Her eighth-place finish in Los Angeles remains the best by a Canadian woman marathoner in the Olympics.
A national accounts manager for Brooks athletic shoes, she was also a passionate promoter of Start2Finish, a program encouraging literacy and athleticism among underprivileged children. She was frequently asked to make inspirational speeches, during which she brought along a framed display featuring her Olympic bib (No. 060) and a wrinkled note on foolscap retrieved 20 years after it was hidden between floorboards of the family farmhouse.