FREMONT -- Sprinter Irene Obera has racked up so many victories for so long, it appears she might be outracing life's toughest competitor: aging.
The 80-year-old Fremont athletic star, who has been running -- and nearly always winning -- on tracks around the globe for 55 years, broke four records and took three national titles at last month's Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships in Boston.
The strong showing earned her an Athlete of the Week award from USA Track and Field, the nation's governing body for amateur running sports.
And Obera said she's not slowing down now.
"I've never felt old. I've always felt young, no matter what," she said last week before practicing in a park. "How am I supposed to feel? I feel great, that's all I know."
Obera has conquered other challenges besides advancing age. In the mid-1970s, she petitioned track-and-field officials to offer as many tournament competitions and age divisions for female athletes as for men. It took a few years, but the sport finally changed. Today, she said, the improved gender equality at her track meets pleases her.
"I'm happy they have it now for the women," she said. "You can't give up the fight, you know. You have to keep pushing."
Obera surprised even herself with her recent record-setting marks.
She ran the 60-, 200- and 400-meter races in Boston, setting world and American records for her age division in each one. She crushed the 200-meter record with a 36.53 time, nearly five seconds faster than the previous world record. She also set a shot put record at 22 feet and 2.25 inches.
"I was so shocked at the world-record times," said Obera, who raced against women in the 70-and-older age division because she was the only 80-year-old competitor. "I was just happy to run with all those young ones."
Her victories came a week after Sports Illustrated's second feature on her in its Faces in the Crowd section. The magazine had profiled her in 1962, when she ran the 100-yard dash under 11 seconds.
Obera has been running competitively since the late 1950s, when the Chico State University grad moved to Berkeley.
She said she liked playing softball, tennis and field hockey. But she took to track and field so quickly she soon left other sports, and most of her competitors, in the dust.
In 1960 and 1968, she qualified for the Olympic trials in a bid to join the U.S. national track team. An injury knocked her out of competition in '64. She did not make the national team either time but said she would never forget those experiences, during which she befriended future Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph and other track-and-field stars.
Obera continued to compete in Masters Track & Field races -- a USA Track and Field-sanctioned division for athletes 30 and older and has won countless gold medals at competitions all over the world, earning induction into the Masters Track & Field Hall of Fame and Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame, among others.
During much of that time, she was a Berkeley school district teacher, counselor and principal. She retired in 1994, and has since lived in Fremont.
Obera said she enjoyed her education career, not least because it fed her true passion, paying her way to amateur track meets in Europe, Australia, Africa and around the United States.
"A friend once told me, 'You became a school principal to pay for your running habit,'" she said, laughing. "That was true, but I also had a strict budget and kept costs lower by having an apartment -- not a house -- to pay for my travel."
Obera's deep commitment to the sport fueled her success but so has her competitive zeal, said Alan Kolling, her friend and training partner.
"It's a mark of excellence; she knows she has the talent and she never settles," said Kolling, an El Cerrito resident and USA Track and Field official. "I always set these ridiculously high goals for her and she surprises me by always meeting them, and then I have to come up with new ones."
Obera is off to the races again this summer, when she will compete at the Masters Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Winston-Salem, N.C. Win or lose, Obera said she is grateful to still be able to do something she loves.
"I always say, I wasn't put on this Earth to suffer," she said. "So, I've been living up to that motto."
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.