NOVEMBER 3, 1980
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 Pieter-maritzburg, 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 back."