May 24, 1971
Marty Liquori's hobbies are beginning to collide. "I can't play my guitar now," he moaned recently. "I broke my finger falling in a bike race. But I'm using the time to study harmony and jazz theory." At 50, Liquori's life has come full circle. He aspired to study guitar at Juilliard, in New York City, but Fred Dwyer, his track coach at Essex ( N.J.) Catholic High, called Liquori's parents to tell them what a wondrous gift their son had and, for god's sake, to make him put away that darn guitar.
Dwyer was right: Liquori ran 3:59.8 in 1967, his senior year, and remains the last U.S. high school runner to break four minutes for the mile. Though he was the best American middle-distance runner of the mid-1970s—he beat Jim Ryun in a Dream Mile that lived up to its billing—Liquori was unlucky with injuries and made his only Olympic appearance at Mexico City in '68, where he finished 12th in the 1,500 meters. When President Carter announced the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980, Liquori decided to retire, with bests of 3:36.0 for 1,500 meters, 3:52.2 for the mile and 13:15.06 for 5,000 meters.
Liquori prospered as owner of Athletic Attic, a chain of athletic shoe stores, and has broadcast every Olympics since 1972 on television or radio. In '92 he learned he had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer that attacks the blood supply. "The key word is chronic. It will come back," says Liquori, who opted, with good results, for a chemotherapy drug called fludarabine. The disease has been in remission longer than expected, and Liquori has reordered his life, selling Athletic Attic and cutting back on the production schedules of the road-race and triathlon television shows he does for ESPN, which include Saucony Running and Racing. He gave up roller hockey but stays fit by racing mountain bikes. He'll be part of NBC's broadcast team for the Sydney Olympics.
"It all falls under the heading of gifts that cancer can give," says Liquori, who lives in Gainesville, Fla., with his fianc�e, Debra Main, and her two children. (Liquori's son, Michael, is a sophomore at Georgetown.) Above all, the illness triggered a return to his first passion, the guitar. Liquori continues to take lessons, collects old records and esoteric books on jazz, plays gigs in clubs and, for the past year, has backed a women's vocal group, the Sweet Notes, which performs at hospices and retirement communities. "Once you have that wake-up call, you find you don't do things because they pay well or because someone says you should. Without the diagnosis, none of this would have happened."