Vicki Huber stood on the garish orange and yellow track in Oklahoma City's Myriad Convention Center on Saturday night and contemplated the next hour of her life. The Villanova junior was about to run the mile at the NCAA indoor track championships; 55 minutes later she would defend her title in the 3,000. No woman had ever won a distance double at this meet. "She'll either be the big story," said Marty Stern, the Villanova women's coach, "or she'll be the big flop."
It's hard to discuss Huber without also mentioning Stern. He is one of the characters of the track world, a leprechaun in a brown fedora who is equally fond of bad jokes and good tequila. Before he went to Villanova in 1983, Stern operated a mail-order athletic-shoe business out of his house in Doylestown, Pa., not far from Philadelphia. He called it Uncle Marty's Sneaker Barn. One year, in a stroke of Uncle Martyish genius, he paid to have a picture of his smiling face printed on the back of every ticket to the Penn Relays. When he got the Villanova job, Stern had less time to spend with shoes, and the Barn closed its doors in 1984. The coaching business, however, has done just fine. In the four years he has been head coach at Villanova, Stern has produced 37 All-Americas and seven individual NCAA champions. Huber is the best of a very impressive bunch.
When the gun fired for the mile on Saturday night. Huber surged into the lead. "Td been thinking about the mile all week," she said. Huber passed the quarter in 66 seconds, with teammate Kathy Franey and Indiana's Colette Goudreau only a stride behind. But by the half it was clear that no one would catch Huber. She won by nearly 50 yards, lowering the meet record of 4:39.15, which she had set in Friday's preliminary, to 4:31.46. In the stands Uncle Marty did an insane dance.
Stern recruited Huber out of Concord High in Wilmington. Del., where she had set state prep records at 800 meters, 1,500 meters and 1,600 meters. Also an all-state field hockey player, she brought her stick to Villanova in hopes of persuading Stern she could compete in both sports, but he said no.
March 21, 1988
Huber missed qualifying for the NCAA championships, both indoors and out, her freshman year. But as a sophomore, in 1987, she won NCAA titles at 3,000 meters, both indoors and out. At the outdoor championships last June, she lowered her 3,000 best to 8:54.41, sprinting away from the field with 800 meters to go and winning by nearly four seconds.
Then, three weeks later, just when she seemed invincible, Huber did a strange thing. She skipped the TAC meet, passing up a chance to qualify for the World Championships in Rome in September. "If she'd run the TAC meet, it would not have been good," says Stern. "She would've made the U.S. team and gone to Europe." Competing through the summer would have allowed her no break between the track and cross-country seasons. Instead, Huber spent the summer in Wilmington, training and resting up for the more important Olympic year that was to follow.
If there were doubts about the decision, Huber laid them to rest at the Millrose Games last month. In a mile field full of international veterans. Huber finished third behind Olympic 800-meter champion Doina Melinte of Romania and Kirsty Wade of Great Britain. Huber's time was 4:28.31; it was a new collegiate record and made her the second-fastest American woman in the indoor mile, behind Mary Decker Slaney.
As exuberant as Stern was over Huber's victory in the mile on Saturday. Vicki herself had to hold off celebrating. She went to the practice track in another part of the Myriad to jog the lactic acid out of her legs and think about the 3,000.
Had Huber stayed in the main arena, she, along with the 4,459 in attendance, would have witnessed a double which, for guts and ambition, rivaled her own. The Arkansas Razorbacks, in search of their fifth straight team title, found themselves in a tight battle with Illinois. They needed a small miracle.
Enter Joe Falcon, the Hogs' diminutive superman, who won the NCAA cross-country championship last fall while leading Arkansas to a team title. An hour and five minutes after winning the mile in a relaxed 3:59.78, the 5'6", 118-pound Falcon was back on the track to defend his title in the 3,000. For the first mile he ran near the back of the eight-man pack. "I wanted to get on the leader's shoulder with three laps to go," Falcon said. With two laps left, the patient Falcon at last found himself on the shoulder of UCLA's Mark Junkermann. The Arkansas senior sprinted so hard around the next turn that he passed Junkermann and gained 10 yards on him before entering the straight. Falcon was never threatened, finishing in 7:55.80. "In an NCAA meet," said Falcon, who is something of an expert on the subject. "you don't run fast, you run to win." At the end of the evening Falcon had personally given Arkansas 20 points, more than enough to secure a 34-29 win over Illinois.
Like Falcon, Huber ran her second race of the night cautiously. I felt tired," she said. "I was glad when Trina Leopold of Texas took it out. It was a break to be able to follow for a while." Hovering on Leopold's shoulder, Huber passed the 1,600-meter mark in 4:58. With 600 meters to go, Huber followed Stern's advice. "He told me when I went, to just go—no second thoughts—because you don't get a second chance."
At the bell lap she led Heidi Olafsdottir of Alabama by 10 yards and held that margin to win in 9:05.67. Villanova needed more than Huber, though, in the team competition; the Wildcats finished second. Texas won its second title, thanks in large part to frosh Carlette Guidry, who won the long jump and the 55 meters, ran a leg on the winning 4 X 400-meter relay and placed second in the 200 meters, and was named the meet's outstanding performer.
Uncle Marty is a great believer in long-term planning. Months ago he and Huber agreed that on this night at the Myriad she would be running for Villanova. That will soon change. "She needs to make the Olympic team in July," Stern says, referring to the U.S. trials on July 15-23, in Indianapolis. "We won't ask her to do this [the double] outdoors when she is close to doing things that will be important for the rest of her life."