In Baton Rouge she stood at the starting line with Colette Goudreau of Indiana, whom Stern considered her chief rival. For six laps she sat on Goudreau's shoulder, waiting. Then in the final 700 meters, Huber blasted off. "When she beat Goudreau, who is really good, and won with such ease," recalls Stern, "I knew we really had something special. And there had been pressure on her because she'd won indoors."
Huber surprised a lot of people that year when she ended her season with the outdoor NCAA meet rather than entering the prestigious TAC championships two weeks later. By skipping the TAC meet, she forfeited the chance to earn a place on the U.S. team that would participate in the World Championships in Rome. A lot of people thought Huber would profit from international experience, but she and Stern knew that what she really needed was rest. "It would've hurt me," says Huber. "I was ready to go home. I wanted to get a job and not think about track."
"She spent the summer waitressing at a nice Jewish country club," says Stern. "It made me very happy."
Pressure is something that worries Stern a lot. Pressure, he says, can be tsuris, which is, loosely, Yiddish for "pain in the——." So he showed no concern when Huber finished 25 meters behind Slaney at the Olympic trials. "Lucky for me," says Huber, "Mary got all the attention in Seoul."
These days Huber is getting the attention, and she harbors mixed feelings about it. She also senses that her talent will carry her places that her Villanova teammates, who have supported her emergence onto the world track scene, might not be able to go. She ends an interview by asking, "Will my teammates be in this?"
Since the Olympics, the pressure on Huber has grown by strides. That's why she and Stern weren't upset when she lost the NCAA indoor mile to Suzy Favor of Wisconsin in March. Huber had not lost to an intercollegiate rival since her freshman season. The defeat lifted a burden that Huber had wanted lifted for months. "We kept waiting," she says. "When was I going to lose? Of course, I didn't want to lose to Suzy, but in a way it was a relief."
Huber and Stern look back on the intense experience they shared in Seoul from different perspectives. Stern went months without once watching his videotape of the 3,000. "It's hard to go back," he says. "It was so happy, so emotional. I just want to savor the way it was live."
Huber, on the other hand, has watched the tape regularly, perhaps to prove to herself that she really ran that fast. As she watches herself, the last runner off the starting line, begin her steady push to the front, Huber can't stop smiling. She sees herself finally reach the broad right shoulder of Paula Ivan, who would win the 1,500 final six days later, and sees the powerful Romanian flash her a quizzical look. "It was neat," Huber says with a grin. "She had no idea who I was." Down the backstretch with 2� laps to go, Huber surges into the lead. She passes the 2,000-meter mark in 5:44.08, a collegiate record. More to the point: She leaves Slaney in the dust, to be swallowed by the pack.
Stern had carefully groomed Huber for this moment, but it was still scary out front. "Why did I just do that?" she asked herself then. "I'm leading the whole race." Crazy things crossed her mind at the moment, she says, like veering off the track into the cool shelter of one of the stadium tunnels. For 500 meters Huber ran at the front of the greatest women's distance field in history.
Finally, with about 500 meters to go, Yvonne Murray of Great Britain surged past, followed instantly by Ivan and Tatyana Samolenko of the Soviet Union, then by Yelena Romanova and Natalya Artyomova, Samolenko's teammates. At this sudden change of fortune, Huber might have collapsed, drained, had she not recalled Stern's advice. He had told her that "strength and years may prevail" in a race of such magnitude. "These 29-and 30-year-olds—whatever they do to get strong—may come by you at the end of the race," he had said. "You should almost expect that to happen. Be prepared when it does. Don't let it distract you."