Doc Sandoval Dims for Barcelona

Marathoner Anthony Sandoval, now a cardiologist and the father of five, is trying for the Olympics one more time
March 09, 1992

Presiliano Sandoval smiles. He is 67 years old and he is remembering. "When Anthony was little, maybe six or eight, we used to split wood with a wedge," he says. "We would go on cold winter mornings together into the mountains, bundle ourselves up, cover our ears, wear good gloves and proper shoes. We'd split wood and sometimes the snow would be falling."

Presiliano goes on to describe how the splitting of the frozen piñon would resound like a rifle pop through the mountains; how father, with his big sledgehammer and wedge, and son, with his smaller version of each, worked side by side in the high country above Truchas, N.Mex.; how the boy never complained and never quit; and how he would often shoulder his small hammer and wedge and go into the mountains alone to split wood.

"Some of the other boys, on the cold mornings they would fuss," says Presiliano, laughing. "But Anthony was always willing to go. He was always willing to work."

Anthony Sandoval can't bring a smile to everyone. This November morning Sandoval, now a cardiologist at Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, is making rounds. He walks into the room of a young woman. She is so thin. Dark circles ring her eyes. She is lying in a bed and looking out the window. She doesn't turn her head when Sandoval enters. Her husband sits on the edge of a chair. In the five minutes Sandoval spends in the room, the husband never stops wringing his hands.

Sandoval walks to the woman's bedside. He talks to her quietly, then asks for a smile. She continues to stare out the window.

"No smiles today," says Sandoval softly. "That's O.K."

The woman turns away from the window and looks at him.

"Not yet," she says.

Sandoval nods and leaves the room. Born with a congenital heart defect, the woman will die. She has been told. She will leave behind her handwringing husband and two infants.

"You gently try to work them through a little bit of information, a little bit of implication," says Sandoval, standing for a moment in the hallway. "It is never easy. The ones who die make a big impression on you."

Twelve years ago Sandoval was the fastest marathoner in the U.S., quite possibly the fastest in the world. On May 24, 1980, five days after his 26th birthday, Sandoval ran to a 2:10:19 win at the Olympic marathon trials in Buffalo. Unfortunately, three months earlier President Jimmy Carter, protesting the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, announced that the U.S. would boycott the Moscow Games. East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski won the Olympic gold in 2:11:03.

A decade passed, and Sandoval became a cardiologist and the father of five.

Next month, at the Olympic marathon trials on April 11 in Columbus, Ohio, Sandoval will try to make the team again. He will be 37. One final time he will chase the dream that has eluded him for 16 years, ever since he missed an Olympic berth by one place at the 1976 trials.

Dramatic stuff, but irrelevant here. Hospital hallways are not places for reflection. Contemplating your navel here will get you trampled. Sandoval bustles off. For the next eight hours he will examine patients, wade through voluminous files, make notes that will create more voluminous files, and have a pleasant word for everyone. He will sit three times, yawn once and pick at a piece of greasy chicken and call it lunch. Sandoval doesn't practice medicine so much as he is swept up by it. Some of the other cardiologists move about with studied importance. At 5'8" and 120 pounds, the smooth-faced Sandoval looks as if he had come to the door selling magazines and got pressed into service because the hospital was shorthanded. There is play in his manner. You half expect him to motion you close, then squirt you in the eye with the jaunty red-and-blue bow tie he's sporting.

He examines a perky, elderly woman recovering from heart surgery. She plops herself up on the examining table and immediately goes on the offensive. At her last visit to the hospital, she tells Sandoval, the nurses were wearing so much perfume she spent most of her time vomiting.

Sandoval won't be thrown by this tack.

"Have you been walking?" he asks politely.

Well, a little, she says, but she doesn't think it's fair that she has to do all this work while her neighbor smokes, eats anything he wants, does next to nothing for exercise and has no problems at all.

Sandoval smiles.

"Well, you just have to do the right things for yourself and ride things out."

That is precisely why Sandoval is making another Olympic bid. He was fourth at the 1976 trials, first in the '80 trials and sixth at the trials in '84. In 1988, deep into his medical career and woefully unprepared, he ran 2:22:37 and finished back in the anonymous pack. That halfhearted effort, and the niggling near misses preceding it, couldn't be ignored. Before he crossed the finish line, Sandoval's wife, Mary, knew what was coming.

"I fully expected him to try again," says Mary. "Anthony can't do any job, even the most mundane thing, without finishing it and finishing it right."

The Sandovals made two decisions. The '92 effort would be as focused as possible. It would have to be.

"Back in 1980 we were a lot younger," says Mary. "The future was still coming." She shakes her head and laughs. "This is it. We cannot do this again."

And so, last June, Sandoval pared back his cardiology schedule and moved Mary and their five children from Albuquerque to Los Alamos, N.Mex. He makes the 93-mile trip to Albuquerque by car two days a week and spends the rest of his time in Los Alamos, a town of 18,500 that was the site of the development of the first atomic bomb. The town rests on mesas at 7,200 feet. The Jemez Mountains, which flank the west side of town, jut up to 11,254 feet. The mountains are laced with rugged trails. The air is thin. Drawing a breath on the run is like sucking taffy through a straw. It is a wonderful place to train for the marathon.

Happy coincidence, because this fact had little to do with the Sandovals' coming here. This is home. Mary grew up in Los Alamos. Anthony went to high school here. To the east of the mesas, across the washed flat-lands of the Rio Grande Valley, are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Within their folds is Truchas, Anthony's father and the family farm. Anthony refers to it as "the place"—where he grew up; where he and his five siblings split pi‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±on on brittle winter mornings; where they walked the summer mountains tending cattle and pitched hay well past dusk, banging their heads on the barn rafters in the half-light. It was also home to a lively, and one-sided, porcine rodeo, the little Sandovals hitching up their britches and straddling the family pigs for the ride of their lives. "We'd hold on to their ears while they'd run squealing in and out of the trees trying to scrape us off," says Anthony, grinning. "The pigs always won." For Anthony, Truchas is the center of the universe.

"For generations and generations both Mom's and Dad's families were from Truchas or the surrounding little communities," says Sandoval. "They grew up working hard and they died working hard and they believed real hard. That's very important to me. That's one of the things that makes me struggle so much."

Truchas also instilled a firm sense of priorities. Sandoval has struggled mightily in both medicine and running, but never at the expense of what really matters.

Dinnertime at the Anthony Sandovals'. The assembled energy rivals anything Robert Oppenheimer ever cooked up. Strung out around a repast of homemade enchiladas are Magdalena, 10; Miguel, 7; Marisa, 5; Analisa, 3; and Benigno, 8 months. Blue eyes and blond heads fill the room. Sandoval, who is brown-haired, is of Spanish and Native American descent. He may have the recessive gene, but he also has the last word. "My blue-eyed gringitos," he calls them.

Analisa, an energetic sprite who will shed her clothes at a moment's notice, bobs dangerously close to her water glass. Sensing a need for distraction, Sandoval asks her to say the dinner prayer. Everyone joins hands. Analisa gathers herself and blurts out everything she is thankful for, namely the family rabbits and the fact that the community pool is open this Saturday.

Prone to deeper reflection, her daddy sees his comeback effort as a chance to impart a valuable lesson to his children.

"What really is number one in our lives is our family," he says. "A big reason for doing this, going back to hard training and focused effort, is to have the kids experience someone close to them making a plan and working hard and diligently at it. I want them to know that you just don't go out and have great success. You have to do your homework before that."

Sandoval has had to bone up in a hurry. Until he started training in earnest last summer, he hadn't done any serious running since 1984. He started his training by running 30 miles a week. Madonna runs more than that. She also has more company. Before the '80 trials Sandoval trained in Los Alamos with Jeff Wells, John Lodwick, Kevin McCarey and Lionel Ortega, all members then of the elite Athletics West running club. This time around, Sandoval runs alone or with the "Varmints," a merry band of local runners whose enthusiasm is no match for Sandoval's leg speed. "They are wonderful," says Sandoval, after leading the Varmints through a noon session of half-mile repeats on the track. The Varmints would respond in kind if they weren't busily sucking air from between their knees.

Before the track workout Sandoval spends an hour explaining the wonders of the digestive system to Miguel's second-grade class at Mountain Elementary School. To impress upon his charges the scope of the intestine, Sandoval tells how he and his father once removed the intestines of a butchered cow and stretched them to their full length. "We walked, and we walked, and we walked until we were across the field, practically," says Sandoval, his eyes wide. This causes a minor uproar.

Steve Spence, whose 2:12:17 best makes him one of the favorites in Columbus, is polite about Sandoval's hopes. "Chances are, at 20 miles there will be some surprises up there," says Spence, who was 14 when Sandoval ran in the 76 trials. "If I were to see him still up there at 20 miles, I would consider that a surprise. I wouldn't rule it out, but I don't expect it, either."

Those who know Sandoval well aren't so sure. They cite his drive and talent. They cite the marathon's vagaries and the power of a 16-year dream. They cite precedent: Portugal's Carlos Lopes was 37 when he won the 1984 Olympic marathon. They pause. They cough. They begin to gush. Among his friends Sandoval inspires a devotion that gives their objectivity two tads of taint.

"Anthony is a rare individual, extremely gifted both physically and intellectually," says former teammate Wells. "If that weren't enough, he's also a super guy. He may not have a recent track record, but I still think he'll be the most gifted athlete at the trials. It would not surprise me at all if he made the team."

Wells majors in faith: He is now a pastor in The Woodlands, a Houston suburb. But others also give Sandoval a chance.

"The odds are against him, but he has a shot," says Marshall Clark, who coached Sandoval at Stanford University in the mid-'70s. "It's been a long time since he's competed, and I worry about that. Still, we're talking about a very exceptional person who knows this is his last chance." Clark hangs on valiantly, then his last shred, of objectivity dissolves. "God," he says. "Wouldn't it be a fairy-tale ending if he pulled this off?"

Sandoval has no idea how he will fare at the trials. He hasn't run a marathon of distinction since he clocked 2:12:42 at the 1984 trials. He has run only one marathon since 1988, a desultory 2:23 at last October's Twin Cities Marathon. Still, Sandoval is characteristically upbeat. His years of sporadic training, he says, have kept him fresh and injury-free. Mentally, he believes he is as strong as anyone. With proper preparation and a bit of luck, he says, he can still run fast, possibly faster than he has ever run.

He stretches out in a living room easy chair, next to a fireplace strung with five sets of little mittens. "People ask me, 'Are you ready?' 'Are you on track?' " He smiles softly. "I have no idea. I have no clue how things will work out. I may come in 75th. If I do, I'll be disappointed, but if I were to take inventory of the year, it has all been wonderful. I'd be happy just for what our family has shared."

Perhaps. Later that evening the family gathers in the living room for a bedtime story. Anthony sits in an armchair, Miguel and Marisa prop themselves up in his lap. Outside it is cold and dark. Inside it is warm. Analisa celebrates the temperature differential by lifting her nightshirt over her head.

Sandoval begins reading. The story, Where the Red Fern Grows, is about a boy, named Billy, growing up. The boy and his two dogs have treed a raccoon in an enormous sycamore. The dogs can't scurry up and the coon won't come down, so the boy decides to chop down the tree. He chops through the night and into the next day. His arms and hands turn numb. His back aches. He won't quit. His mother worries. His sister thinks he's crazy. But Grandpa—Grandpa knows differently.

The fire crackles, logs settling into ash. Sandoval reads Grandpa's words slowly. Blue eyes take it all in.

" 'You know, Billy,' " intones Sandoval in his most grandfatherly voice, " 'about this tree-chopping of yours, I think it's all right. In fact, I think it would be a good thing if all young boys had to cut down a big tree like that once in their life.' "

Sometimes twice.

PHOTODOUGLAS MERRIAMDenied by the '80 boycott, Sandoval knows this is his last shot. PHOTOTONY TOMSICGood time, bad timing: Sandoval won the 1980 trials but couldn't go to Moscow. PHOTODOUGLAS MERRIAMSandoval is training on the mesas near Truchas, where he grew up. PHOTODOUGLAS MERRIAMAt the hospital, he displays patience and understanding. PHOTODOUGLAS MERRIAMSandoval wants his children to learn from his hard effort.

Ken McAlpine is a free-lance writer who lives in Ventura, Calif.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)