The whole final lap Huber used those words to help fight her mounting exhaustion. Ahead of her Samolenko, running the last 400 meters in an astonishing 59.4 seconds, pulled away from Ivan in the homestretch to win in 8:26.53, an Olympic record. In fact, the first five finishers in the race all broke the Olympic record. Huber, though she lost about 10 seconds to Samolenko in that last lap, hung on to finish sixth. Her 8:37.25 was her best time by more than nine seconds. It made her the second-fastest American ever—behind Slaney.
After she crossed the finish line, it took a few moments for Huber to absorb the reality of her achievement. When she finally realized what she had done, she wept. "I'd been happy after other races, like the NCAAs," she says, "but I'd never let myself enjoy it because I knew there was something else ahead."
To understand Huber, it helps to know Stern, for by now the two are joined by an almost telepathic bond. Huber calls it a "weird thing." She says, "We read each other's minds."
Stern grew up just off 54th Street in West Philadelphia, five blocks from the childhood home of Jumbo Elliott, the legendary Villanova track coach. According to family lore, Stern attended the prestigious Penn Relays for the first time at the age of three, when he was carried into Franklin Field by his father. The child's early love of track endured. Years later, at West Chester State College, Stern earned eight letters, in cross-country, wrestling and track.
Stern went on to coach track at a succession of suburban Philadelphia high schools in the '60s and '70s. In those days, as now, the highlight of the local outdoor season was the Penn Relays, which staged races among area high school teams as a prelude to the main collegiate events. "I'd bring my 4 X 100 teams down to run on Friday, and I'd look up into the stands, and there Jumbo would be, in the same spot every year," says Stern. "His West Philadelphia buddies, who had moved out to the Main Line, would all come from their offices downtown to watch the distance medley, all of them in long coats and hats, looking very classy. It made a real impression on me."
Elliott coached the Wildcats for nearly 47 years, until his death in 1981, bringing in promising male runners and routinely turning them into the most elite club of middle-distance runners in the world.
But Elliott expected his runners to do more than just run fast. "Jumbo always wanted us to strive for excellence both on and off the track," says Eamonn Coghlan, Villanova '76, still the world indoor record holder in the mile. "To represent ourselves correctly in all walks of life. To dress well and to study hard."
Stern demands the same excellence from his women runners. In the classroom, the 14 women who run for him have an incredible team GPA of 3.17. "The goal of our program," he says, "is to teach our runners to express themselves as artists or musicians would do. When Vicki runs, she is saying, 'This is me. This is my personality.' You have to perform that way to become really great."
Huber came home from Seoul and tried to ease back into normal life during the fall semester at Villanova. She enrolled in one course, skipped cross-country season and, in Stern's words, "tried real hard to be a college coed." That proved more difficult than either Huber or Stern had anticipated. "I'd go for a run, and people would honk their horns," she says. "I went Christmas shopping and didn't get anything done. Then you get the people who just point and whisper. I tried to stay under wraps."
The wraps came off long enough for Huber to appear on the cover of
in March. Next season she will almost certainly sign an endorsement contract that will only heighten her visibility, as will her continued pursuit of Slaney's crown. But Stern is fiercely protective. He has turned down almost all of the more than 50 invitations Huber has received to speak at banquets or make personal appearances. "You can't go from not being noticed to being a national celebrity in one year," he says.