Alberto Salazar has no desire to be known as the last great
American marathoner, but that's exactly what he is. His victories
in Boston and New York in 1982 crowned a decade of U.S. dominance
in the event; no U.S. man has won either race since '83. The next
year Salazar was one of 201 American men to qualify for the
Olympic trials by running 26.2 miles in less than 2:19:04. In
2001 only 19 U.S. men broke 2:20. In an effort to develop
homegrown talent, Salazar, 43, is working with six elite runners
in a Nike-sponsored training program known as the Oregon Project.
"The goal," says Salazar, "is to have Americans running at a
level to win in New York and Boston."
In the early 1980s nobody ran at a higher level than Salazar, a
former NCAA cross-country champ who won New York in the first
marathon he entered, set a world best of 2:08:13 in the second
and didn't lose for more than two years. Cuban-born, raised in
Massachusetts and a graduate of Oregon, he was brashly confident,
backing up his words with gritty performances and a dedication to
training that had other world-class runners shaking their heads.
As rapid as Salazar's ascension was, his mysterious decline was
even faster. He never won a marathon after New York in 1982 and
spent the next 15 years trying everything from acupuncture to
Prozac in hopes of regaining his form. Five years ago doctors
discovered that a case of bronchitis from '83 had precipitated
asthma and that Salazar's lung capacity had diminished by 40%.
"My breathing got worse every year," he says. "There was really
nothing I could have done about it."
Despite his condition, Salazar attained one more moment of glory,
winning the 1995 edition of the famed Comrades Marathon, a
53.75-mile race between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, South
Africa. He walked away from competition after that and today
works in marketing for Nike, with an office in the Mia Hamm
Building. "I've worked in Michael Jordan and John McEnroe," he
says, "but never in Alberto Salazar." He and his wife, Molly,
have three children: Tony, 19, will be a redshirt freshman wide
receiver at Oregon in the fall; Alex, 18, will be a freshman at
Portland, where he will play soccer; and Maria, 11, likes riding
horses. "She's my last hope for a runner," Alberto says.
In addition to his work with the Oregon Project, Salazar also
serves as a boys' track coach at Portland's Central Catholic
High, an inner-city school. "I don't think I ever reached my
physical peak," he says. "We know so much more now. That's why
it's exciting for me to work with these young guys. I can't go
COLOR PHOTO: JERRY COOKE (COVER) Once unbeatable in the marathon, Salazar is working to restore American fortunes in the long run.
COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN [See caption above]