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Originally published Monday, October 4, 2010 at 7:24 PM

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Letiwe Patton, interim cross-country coach at Seattle Pacific, hopes journey leads to London Olympics

Letiwe Patton is filling in as Seattle Pacific cross-country coach while Erika Daligcon is away on maternity leave. Patton hopes to compete in 2012 London Olympics in the steeplechase for her native Zimbabwe.

Special to The Seattle Times

If her dream comes true, Letiwe Patton is traveling a path that will lead her to the starting line of the steeplechase race at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Her journey, which began in her native Zimbabwe, has included stops in Georgia, Idaho and now Seattle. Just three years after arriving here and working as a wireless phone company rep, she's now the interim cross-country coach at Seattle Pacific.

Not too surprising; Patton has always moved fast.

"I've been very fortunate," said Patton, 32, who first competed for her home country at age 15 in the world cross-country championships in Budapest, Hungary, finishing 22nd.

Patton grew up as Letiwe (La-TEE-way) Marakurwa, the youngest of 10 children raised on a farm in Dorowa, Zimbabwe. Sports participation was required for children at her school, and she stood out as an effortless runner.

"It was just a natural talent," she said.

She became Zimbabwe's top junior distance runner, and qualified for a scholarship program that placed international athletes in U.S. colleges to train to be future Olympians.

After a short stay at Life University near Atlanta, she transferred to Idaho, where coach Wayne Phipps introduced her to the steeplechase, a 3,000-meter run with periodic jumps.

Initially, she was unimpressed.

"My first race was the worst of my life," she recalled. "I still remember it to this day."

She persisted, and in her junior year she placed fourth at the 2003 NCAA outdoor nationals, clocking a best of 9 minutes, 52.98 seconds — still Zimbabwe's national record.

Injuries and insufficient training time kept her out of Olympic competition from 2000 to 2008. Her time, she says, has arrived.

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"My personal best is not too far from the qualification time," she said.

The provisional standard is 9:48; the automatic standard 9:40. She must clock a qualifying time between spring 2011 and July 2012.

"I just need to work a little bit extra hard to get to where I was when I ran my personal best," she said. "I'm just four seconds off the provisional qualifying time. Why not try for it? I think I can do it."

Patton holds a master's degree in sports and recreational management and believes she can be a good coach, as well. With SPU's third-year cross-country coach, Erika Daligcon, out on maternity leave, Patton gets a chance to prove her skills. The SPU women's program placed in the top four at three straight NCAA Division II national meets. Patton will also coach the men's team.

Things move fast around Patton. She came to Seattle to visit a former teammate and never left; got married; took, then ditched, a telecom job; joined Seattle University as a volunteer coach; then shifted to SPU in that role in 2009. Now, she's the big cheese until Daligcon returns later this season.

"It's a big jump," Patton said. "Actually, it's not as bad or as scary as I thought it might be. Erika still communicates with me, and I do ask questions. But I feel comfortable here. I feel like I've been doing it for a long time. I enjoy working with a great group of kids with so much talent."

Her style?

"I'm pretty strict," she said with a laugh. "I don't yell and bark, but when I say something, I mean it.

"I'm very sensitive to showing up for practice on time. The athletes were a little bit laid back on that at the start, and I had to change everything around. Now if practice starts at 9:30, they know if it's 9:20 they're late. So they all show up at 9:15."

Patton says she has a good rapport with her runners.

"They'll imitate my accent sometimes, and it doesn't bother me," she said. "I like to laugh with the kids. Sometimes they don't get my accent right, so I have to correct them to say it the way I'd say it. We get along really well."

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