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Van Onna surprises favorites

An economical stride helped Wilma van Onna win the women's division of the Gasparilla Distance Classic Saturday.

A master's degree in economics will help her figure out how to spend the $10,000 she earned for the victory.

"I'm going to put it in the bank," said van Onna, who recently received her master's from a university in her homeland, the Netherlands. "Or buy a car. I don't have one."

Van Onna didn't need a car Saturday as she shifted into high gear at the 13-kilometer mark of the 15K race and pulled away from favorite Judi St. Hilaire.

Van Onna, competing in her first Gasparilla event, won in 49 minutes, 11 seconds. St. Hilaire, the 1990 winner, was second in 49:18. Olga Markova of Russia was third in 49:40. Van Onna's winning time was well off the course record of 47:43, set in 1988 by Elizabeth McColgan. Hot and humid conditions slowed the runners.

The women's field was considered weak this year since none of last year's top 10 returned, mainly because of preparations for the recent Olympic marathon trials. But that mattered little to van Onna.

"Considering that Judi was in the field and the Russians, I would have been happy to finish in the top three," van Onna said. "This is definitely my biggest win."

Van Onna and St. Hilaire distanced themselves from the rest of the women's field and ran side by side until the 13K mark. Van Onna kicked then, fearing that if she waited any longer, St. Hilaire would catch her with her superior speed.

"I knew Judi has a strong kick, so I knew I had to make my move before the last quarter mile," van Onna said. "When I made my move, I thought she would follow. But she just didn't respond."

Van Onna, 26, who was not considered a top contender, only started road racing in the United States last year after a track career at the University of Texas-El Paso, where she was an All-American in 1989-90. She was not even invited to last year's Gasparilla.

"They didn't have a plane ticket for me," van Onna said. "So I was eager to prove myself this year."

Now van Onna is hoping to use her Gasparilla victory as a ticket to the Olympics, where she wants to run the 10,000 meters.

"This will help me prepare for the Olympics," said van Onna, whose personal best in the 10,000 is 32:30. She needs a 32:10 to make the Dutch Olympic team.

"I was at 32:50 for 10K (her winning time at that distance at a race two weeks ago) today, and I felt very comfortable.

"I've been training very hard, and today it paid off. If I can gain a little more speed, I think I will be in the Olympics."

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