Olympic hopefuls from Lithuania won't soon forget their roots

May 17, 1992|By Phil Hersh | Phil Hersh,Chicago Tribune

Tom Pukstys was on the phone from his apartment in Gainesville, Fla. Pukstys was talking about his friend and guest, discus thrower Romas Ubartas, and translating questions and answers into Lithuanian so Ubartas could do a makeshift interview.

"Romas is one of the most laid-back people I've ever met," said Pukstys, the javelin thrower from Hickory Hills. "He is innerly satisfied with his accomplishments. He is very quiet and doesn't show his emotions very much."

The caller wanted to know what Ubartas would feel in July, as he walks into Barcelona's Olympic Stadium. There, he will be competing for Lithuania instead of the Soviet Union, for which Ubartas had won an Olympic silver medal in 1988.

"That's the first time I've seen him smile like that," Pukstys said of Ubartas' reaction to the question.

The smile was better than a translated answer. Pukstys knew exactly what Ubartas was feeling as he thought about wearing Lithuania's colors in the Olympics. Lithuania is once again independent.

It was during a visit to Lithuania eight years ago that Pukstys, then a student at Stagg High School, was converted from a baseball player to a javelin thrower.

"My brother, Andrew, was in medical school in Lithuania, and he had a roommate who threw the javelin," Pukstys said. "Andrew told his roommate, 'I have a tall, skinny, younger brother,' and the roommate said, 'He is meant to be a javelin thrower.' "

That was soon obvious. Although the javelin is not thrown in Illinois high school meets, Pukstys learned it so well in his spare time that he had the best prep throw in the nation as a high school senior.

Now 23 and a graduate of the University of Florida, Pukstys has gone on to set a collegiate record for a U.S. javelin thrower and make the three-member U.S. javelin team for the 1991 World Track & Field Championships in Tokyo. There he was eliminated in the qualifying round, but he will try to make the 1992 U.S. team at the Olympic Trials.

Ubartas, 31, was the top-ranked discus thrower in the world last year, but he did not go to the World Championships, in which he would still have represented the Soviet Union. Lithuanian authorities did not want the athletes to compete any longer for the Soviets, who had taken over their country in 1940.

"The [Lithuanian track] federation recommended he shouldn't go, but it was Romas' decision," Pukstys said.

Pukstys, who speaks Lithuanian fluently and visited Lithuania frequently, was with Ubartas in Vilnius last summer as he made that decision. It was then that Pukstys invited Ubartas and his coach, Vytautus Jaras, to visit him in the United States this spring.

Ubartas arrived March 20 and returned to Lithuania on Tuesday. He and Pukstys have traveled together to a throwing clinic in New Jersey and a few meets, including the Mount Sac Relays April 18 outside Los Angeles. There, Ubartas won the discus with a throw of 223 feet 8 inches, best in the world this year. Pukstys won the javelin with a U.S.-leading throw of 264-1.

Only two years ago, Pukstys could not have imagined having Ubartas in his living room in April 1992. No one, not even the most skilled Kremlinogists, could have predicted the pace at which change in the Soviet Union would lead to independence for Lithuania and other former Soviet republics.

"I thought it would take 10 years," Pukstys said.

Lithuania declared its independence in March 1990 and was readmitted to the United Nations Sept. 17, 1991. A day later, barely two weeks after the World Track & Field Championships, Lithuania was readmitted to the International Olympic Committee. Lithuania sent six athletes to the 1992 Winter Olympics in France and will have a considerably larger delegation in Barcelona.

Given his past record, which includes a European Championship gold medal in 1986 and victories in the 1986 and 1990 Goodwill Games, Ubartas could be under considerable pressure to win an Olympic medal in Spain.

Lithuania didn't win any in its two previous summer Olympic appearances as an independent nation, in 1924 and 1928. According to research by Olympic historian Bill Mallon, 50 Lithuanian athletes, including Ubartas, were Summer Games medalists for the Soviet Union from 1956 to 1988.

"I definitely think about the pressure, but I try to block it out," Ubartas said, through Pukstys' translation.

Of course, for Ubartas and other Lithuanian athletes, it will be triumph enough just to march behind their country's flag in the Opening Ceremonies. It is better for him to think about that.

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