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Still Coping With Loss Of Husband, Caballero Ready For Boston

Colombian runner's husband unexpectedly died in January of a stroke.

Colombian runner’s husband unexpectedly died in January of a stroke.

(c) 2013 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

BOSTON — Through her pink-rimmed classes Colombian Olympian Yolanda Caballero pauses before she looks a reporter in the eye and says in a low voice: “It was January 21 at 11 o’clock.”

On that day last year Caballero, the South American record holder for the half-marathon, watched her 44-year-old husband and coach, Fernando Rozo, die unexpectedly of a stroke at a hospital in Bogota. Five days earlier, he was fine, she says, the handsome olive-skinned man she still thought of as her boyfriend because he never forgot how to romance her after five years of marriage.

“For many years we are husband and wife, but he was always my boyfriend,” Caballero says misty-eyed. “He gave me flowers and songs.” She continued: “He made me breakfast.”

Caballero, 31, who ran the 2012 Olympic Marathon but failed to finish, is here for Monday’s 117th Boston Marathon, part of a powerful and diverse elite field assembled by John Hancock Financial. Tiny with a girlish voice, Caballero may not be a favorite for victory, but her seventh place finish at the NYC Half last month in a personal best 1:10:30 shows she’s ready to be competitive at Boston, the world’s oldest continuously-ran marathon.

“I expect to do my best,” she says, “my personal best.”

But Caballero’s thoughts are never far from Rozo, a man she fell so hard for that the couple married in 2007 after knowing each other only a month. At the time, Caballero was only a jogger and Rozo would wait for her outside of the office building where she worked.

“He was stalking me,” she jokes.

After two years of marriage, the couple had a son, Camilo, and in 2010 Caballero began to get serious about her running. Rozo was a race walking coach (he coached Luis Fernando López to a bronze medal in the 20-K at the 2011 IAAF World Championships), but he adapted his coaching to help Caballero, who promptly won the Colombian 5000m and 10,000m titles in 2010. Caballero then earned a bronze medal at 5000m at the Ibero-American Championships later that year, then a silver medal at the Central American & Caribbean Games at 10,000m.

Caballero moved up to the marathon for the first time here in Boston last year, clocking a very credible 2:26:17 for 8th place, a performance which earned her selection for last summer’s Olympic Games, her first.

But more importantly, she and Rozo fell even more deeply in love. They had an intense and complex relationship: mother and father, coach and athlete, husband and wife. Caballero was happy and fulfilled.

But the four days that led up to Rozo’s death were shocking and awful.

“He started to be sick the 17th,” she says. “We went out for training and he started to feel head pain.”

The couple went to the hospital, but the doctor said that it was just a routine stomach problem, and sent them home.

“The doctor saw him but did no tests,” she laments. “We went home and he got worse.”

Rozo’s condition worsened, and the couple went back to the hospital and “they gave him fluids,” she recalls. “He couldn’t walk and he couldn’t talk.”

Rozo’s decline was swift. “He stopped breathing,” she explains. “He had a brain problem. Nobody could do anything.”

Running Monday’s race, Caballero will think of Rozo, but it will not be his coaching voice which will run through her head while she tackles the Newton Hills.

“I try to remember him as my husband than my coach,” she says.