For a Decade Mary Slaney Bestrode the world of U.S. women's distance running like a colossus. Even when Slaney dropped out of sight because of pregnancy or injuries, it was understood that her abdication was temporary and that she would be back to sweep away all pretenders from her throne. So when Vicki Huber, a Villanova junior with scant international experience, surged past Slaney and into the lead late in the Olympic 3,000 in Seoul last September, all eyes goggled and blinked. Although Huber did not reach the medal stand in that race—she ended up sixth, in 8:37.25—she finished four places and 10 seconds ahead of Slaney. The old order was changing at last.
That surprised everyone but Huber and "Uncle Marty" Stern, the wise and puckish man who has been her coach since she entered Villanova in the fall of 1985. Ever since the 1987 NCAA outdoor 3,000, when Huber chopped her personal best down from a respectable 9:04.17 to a near world-class 8:54.41, Stern had been insisting, quietly, that his prize runner's goals reached far beyond mere respectability. "We're not training just to make the Olympics," he said. "We're training to run well at the Olympics." That sounded impudent, since Huber was only 20 and had yet to run a single international race. But in Seoul, Huber and Stern got delicious proof that they were neither arrogant nor crazy.
When Huber crosses the finish line in the finals of the 3,000 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships this Friday in Provo, Utah, it will mark the end of an exemplary college track career during which she has excelled in the classroom as well. "I didn't come to Villanova to major in track," Huber once said, and she has been as good as her word. Not only has she already won six NCAA titles and set several collegiate records, but she also has an impressive 3.38 GPA as a psychology/premed major. Recently she was named Big East Scholar/Athlete of the Year.
Huber is immensely talented and, almost as important, she has been blessed with protective coaches to help that talent flourish. She began as a long sprinter on her junior high track team in Wilmington, Del. The summer before her freshman year at Concord High School, she met Joe McNichol, a 1977 Villanova grad who ran training sessions twice a week for the Delaware Sports Club. "The very first time I saw Vicki, she reminded me of Alberto Juantorena," says McNichol, referring to the commanding Cuban middle-distance runner who won two gold medals at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. "She had broad shoulders, narrow hips and really fluid form."
June 4, 1989
A former cross-country runner, McNichol knew the perils of pushing young runners to extremes. "Vicki and I talked about it a lot," McNichol says. "Since she clearly had the talent to win state championships in Delaware without burning out, we agreed not to push too early. We knew there would be life after high school."
Even under such constraints Huber won her first state championship as a sophomore, at 800 meters, and then added titles at 800 and 1,600 in her junior and senior years. But running never monopolized her energies. She played the flute in the school marching band, and in the fall was an all-state field hockey player.
Stern became the Villanova women's coach in the fall of 1984, and Huber was the first athlete he recruited. By his own admission, he was naive in the ways of big-time college sports. He spent a grand total of $4.50 in pursuit of Huber, the price of a meal at the Pit, the so-nicknamed campus dining hall. "I didn't know what I was doing," he says.
"Of all the coaches, Marty called me the least," says Huber, who also made visits to North Carolina, Alabama, the University of Virginia and Tennessee. "I thought he didn't want me." But McNichol and Huber agreed that Villanova was the best place for her to reach her potential as a runner.
Still, the athlete who showed up at Villanova in the fall of 1985 bore little resemblance to the lithe young woman who would finish sixth in the Olympics three years later. In Seoul, Huber, who is 5'6", weighed 107 pounds; when she entered Villanova she was about 25 pounds heavier. She campaigned to be allowed to play field hockey in the fall rather than run cross-country, which she thought was boring. But Stern, who preached a high-intensity, low-mileage program, persuaded her otherwise. That season Huber lost nine pounds. In the spring she cut her 1,500 best to 4:21.15 and won that event and the 3,000 at the Big East Championships.
Huber returned to school for her sophomore year fully committed to Stern's training regimen, and she continued to shed pounds. "I went home after a month," she says, "and my parents were going to yank me out of school because I'd lost so much weight." After convincing her parents that she wasn't malnourished, just fit, Huber finished 29th in the NCAA cross-country meet to earn All-America honors. Indoors, she won her first NCAA title, at 3,000. But it was in the 1987 NCAA outdoors that Huber really made her collegiate breakthrough.
In Baton Rouge she stood at the starting line with Colette Goudreau of Indiana, whom Stern considered her chief rival. For six laps she sat on Goudreau's shoulder, waiting. Then in the final 700 meters, Huber blasted off. "When she beat Goudreau, who is really good, and won with such ease," recalls Stern, "I knew we really had something special. And there had been pressure on her because she'd won indoors."
Huber surprised a lot of people that year when she ended her season with the outdoor NCAA meet rather than entering the prestigious TAC championships two weeks later. By skipping the TAC meet, she forfeited the chance to earn a place on the U.S. team that would participate in the World Championships in Rome. A lot of people thought Huber would profit from international experience, but she and Stern knew that what she really needed was rest. "It would've hurt me," says Huber. "I was ready to go home. I wanted to get a job and not think about track."
"She spent the summer waitressing at a nice Jewish country club," says Stern. "It made me very happy."
Pressure is something that worries Stern a lot. Pressure, he says, can be tsuris, which is, loosely, Yiddish for "pain in the——." So he showed no concern when Huber finished 25 meters behind Slaney at the Olympic trials. "Lucky for me," says Huber, "Mary got all the attention in Seoul."
These days Huber is getting the attention, and she harbors mixed feelings about it. She also senses that her talent will carry her places that her Villanova teammates, who have supported her emergence onto the world track scene, might not be able to go. She ends an interview by asking, "Will my teammates be in this?"
Since the Olympics, the pressure on Huber has grown by strides. That's why she and Stern weren't upset when she lost the NCAA indoor mile to Suzy Favor of Wisconsin in March. Huber had not lost to an intercollegiate rival since her freshman season. The defeat lifted a burden that Huber had wanted lifted for months. "We kept waiting," she says. "When was I going to lose? Of course, I didn't want to lose to Suzy, but in a way it was a relief."
Huber and Stern look back on the intense experience they shared in Seoul from different perspectives. Stern went months without once watching his videotape of the 3,000. "It's hard to go back," he says. "It was so happy, so emotional. I just want to savor the way it was live."
Huber, on the other hand, has watched the tape regularly, perhaps to prove to herself that she really ran that fast. As she watches herself, the last runner off the starting line, begin her steady push to the front, Huber can't stop smiling. She sees herself finally reach the broad right shoulder of Paula Ivan, who would win the 1,500 final six days later, and sees the powerful Romanian flash her a quizzical look. "It was neat," Huber says with a grin. "She had no idea who I was." Down the backstretch with 2½ laps to go, Huber surges into the lead. She passes the 2,000-meter mark in 5:44.08, a collegiate record. More to the point: She leaves Slaney in the dust, to be swallowed by the pack.
Stern had carefully groomed Huber for this moment, but it was still scary out front. "Why did I just do that?" she asked herself then. "I'm leading the whole race." Crazy things crossed her mind at the moment, she says, like veering off the track into the cool shelter of one of the stadium tunnels. For 500 meters Huber ran at the front of the greatest women's distance field in history.
Finally, with about 500 meters to go, Yvonne Murray of Great Britain surged past, followed instantly by Ivan and Tatyana Samolenko of the Soviet Union, then by Yelena Romanova and Natalya Artyomova, Samolenko's teammates. At this sudden change of fortune, Huber might have collapsed, drained, had she not recalled Stern's advice. He had told her that "strength and years may prevail" in a race of such magnitude. "These 29-and 30-year-olds—whatever they do to get strong—may come by you at the end of the race," he had said. "You should almost expect that to happen. Be prepared when it does. Don't let it distract you."
The whole final lap Huber used those words to help fight her mounting exhaustion. Ahead of her Samolenko, running the last 400 meters in an astonishing 59.4 seconds, pulled away from Ivan in the homestretch to win in 8:26.53, an Olympic record. In fact, the first five finishers in the race all broke the Olympic record. Huber, though she lost about 10 seconds to Samolenko in that last lap, hung on to finish sixth. Her 8:37.25 was her best time by more than nine seconds. It made her the second-fastest American ever—behind Slaney.
After she crossed the finish line, it took a few moments for Huber to absorb the reality of her achievement. When she finally realized what she had done, she wept. "I'd been happy after other races, like the NCAAs," she says, "but I'd never let myself enjoy it because I knew there was something else ahead."
To understand Huber, it helps to know Stern, for by now the two are joined by an almost telepathic bond. Huber calls it a "weird thing." She says, "We read each other's minds."
Stern grew up just off 54th Street in West Philadelphia, five blocks from the childhood home of Jumbo Elliott, the legendary Villanova track coach. According to family lore, Stern attended the prestigious Penn Relays for the first time at the age of three, when he was carried into Franklin Field by his father. The child's early love of track endured. Years later, at West Chester State College, Stern earned eight letters, in cross-country, wrestling and track.
Stern went on to coach track at a succession of suburban Philadelphia high schools in the '60s and '70s. In those days, as now, the highlight of the local outdoor season was the Penn Relays, which staged races among area high school teams as a prelude to the main collegiate events. "I'd bring my 4 X 100 teams down to run on Friday, and I'd look up into the stands, and there Jumbo would be, in the same spot every year," says Stern. "His West Philadelphia buddies, who had moved out to the Main Line, would all come from their offices downtown to watch the distance medley, all of them in long coats and hats, looking very classy. It made a real impression on me."
Elliott coached the Wildcats for nearly 47 years, until his death in 1981, bringing in promising male runners and routinely turning them into the most elite club of middle-distance runners in the world.
But Elliott expected his runners to do more than just run fast. "Jumbo always wanted us to strive for excellence both on and off the track," says Eamonn Coghlan, Villanova '76, still the world indoor record holder in the mile. "To represent ourselves correctly in all walks of life. To dress well and to study hard."
Stern demands the same excellence from his women runners. In the classroom, the 14 women who run for him have an incredible team GPA of 3.17. "The goal of our program," he says, "is to teach our runners to express themselves as artists or musicians would do. When Vicki runs, she is saying, 'This is me. This is my personality.' You have to perform that way to become really great."
Huber came home from Seoul and tried to ease back into normal life during the fall semester at Villanova. She enrolled in one course, skipped cross-country season and, in Stern's words, "tried real hard to be a college coed." That proved more difficult than either Huber or Stern had anticipated. "I'd go for a run, and people would honk their horns," she says. "I went Christmas shopping and didn't get anything done. Then you get the people who just point and whisper. I tried to stay under wraps."
The wraps came off long enough for Huber to appear on the cover of Runner's World in March. Next season she will almost certainly sign an endorsement contract that will only heighten her visibility, as will her continued pursuit of Slaney's crown. But Stern is fiercely protective. He has turned down almost all of the more than 50 invitations Huber has received to speak at banquets or make personal appearances. "You can't go from not being noticed to being a national celebrity in one year," he says.
Again this summer Huber will raise eyebrows by passing up both the TAC meet and the European circuit. It was a decision the runner and her coach made together. Says Stern, "We asked ourselves, What's the most important race? The Olympic Games. So we asked ourselves, How do we get in the best shape for 1992? Well, we might want to take a rest." So instead of running in Oslo or Zurich, Huber will get a summer job, go to the beach and eat whatever she feels like eating. "This is a year to regroup," says Huber, contemplating a future brimming with possibilities. "Next year is the year to go for the big time."