My Sportsman: Alberto Salazar
The heart beats strong for this track icon
Posted: Sunday November 25, 2007 2:51PM; Updated: Monday November 26, 2007 12:06PM
Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 3. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer. For more essays, click here.
Alberto Salazar wasn't SI's Sportsman of the Year a quarter century ago, though he easily could have been in any of the three years during the early '80s when he dominated his event. He seemed to turn that most elongated of sports venues, the marathon course, into an intimate and brutal arena -- a boxing ring, say -- and with it, distance running into a kind of foot-to-foot combat. Pictures of Salazar throwing glances at rival Dick Beardsley in their famous Boston Marathon finish in 1982 are the closest that track is likely to come to Neil Leifer's classic photo of Ali glowering over Liston. Not for nothing did Kenny Moore's long profile of Salazar in the March 22,1982 issue of SI run under the headline POSSESSED OF A CERTAIN PRIDE.
For a latter-day Alberto Salazar Sportsman of the Year story I might write --and more or less did a few weeks ago -- the header could just as easily read POSSESSED OF A CERTAIN HUMILITY. Salazar fizzled even faster than he ascended, the victim of burnout. He never really recovered his form after 1983, then migrated to coaching. And then, last June, at 48, he collapsed of a heart attack as he prepared to lead a workout. His heart stopped for 26 minutes.
Sport is about the individual spirit, the miracle of the human body, and teamwork, and what followed wrapped all those things into one. Salazar's athletes ran and phoned for help, while two mammoth football coaches trained in CPR somehow kept blood flowing until paramedics could shock his heart back to beating. Now Salazar is back, coaching, yet knowing that he has been dealt a bad genetic hand.
If all Salazar had done was survive a heart attack, I wouldn't be nominating him for honors of any sort. Rather I'm putting forth his name because he has learned from his vulnerabilities, as both a sportsman and a mortal human being.
As a coach, he imparts lessons of the vanquished athlete he learned the hard way. He guards against overtraining his runners as he once overtrained himself, yet honors the drive of the Africans who have made distance running their own, and revels in the promise and coachability of the young Americans in his stable.
As a heart-attack survivor, he has gracefully embraced a new public role at midlife, ready to do for heart disease what Lance Armstrong has done for cancer.
For those twin achievements, he's my Sportsman of the Year. If you'd like to send him best wishes, address that card to the Nike Campus in Beaverton, Ore. But not to the Alberto Salazar Building. He works in a cubicle in the Mia Hamm Building, with an icon of the Blessed Mother tacked to the corkboard, and aware every day of his life that the longest course to cover is the one that runs from pride to humility.