For a Decade Mary Slaney Bestrode the world of U.S. women's distance running like a colossus. Even when Slaney dropped out of sight because of pregnancy or injuries, it was understood that her abdication was temporary and that she would be back to sweep away all pretenders from her throne. So when Vicki Huber, a Villanova junior with scant international experience, surged past Slaney and into the lead late in the Olympic 3,000 in Seoul last September, all eyes goggled and blinked. Although Huber did not reach the medal stand in that race—she ended up sixth, in 8:37.25—she finished four places and 10 seconds ahead of Slaney. The old order was changing at last.
That surprised everyone but Huber and "Uncle Marty" Stern, the wise and puckish man who has been her coach since she entered Villanova in the fall of 1985. Ever since the 1987 NCAA outdoor 3,000, when Huber chopped her personal best down from a respectable 9:04.17 to a near world-class 8:54.41, Stern had been insisting, quietly, that his prize runner's goals reached far beyond mere respectability. "We're not training just to make the Olympics," he said. "We're training to run well at the Olympics." That sounded impudent, since Huber was only 20 and had yet to run a single international race. But in Seoul, Huber and Stern got delicious proof that they were neither arrogant nor crazy.
When Huber crosses the finish line in the finals of the 3,000 meters at the NCAA outdoor championships this Friday in Provo, Utah, it will mark the end of an exemplary college track career during which she has excelled in the classroom as well. "I didn't come to Villanova to major in track," Huber once said, and she has been as good as her word. Not only has she already won six NCAA titles and set several collegiate records, but she also has an impressive 3.38 GPA as a psychology/premed major. Recently she was named Big East Scholar/Athlete of the Year.
Huber is immensely talented and, almost as important, she has been blessed with protective coaches to help that talent flourish. She began as a long sprinter on her junior high track team in Wilmington, Del. The summer before her freshman year at Concord High School, she met Joe McNichol, a 1977 Villanova grad who ran training sessions twice a week for the Delaware Sports Club. "The very first time I saw Vicki, she reminded me of Alberto Juantorena," says McNichol, referring to the commanding Cuban middle-distance runner who won two gold medals at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. "She had broad shoulders, narrow hips and really fluid form."
A former cross-country runner, McNichol knew the perils of pushing young runners to extremes. "Vicki and I talked about it a lot," McNichol says. "Since she clearly had the talent to win state championships in Delaware without burning out, we agreed not to push too early. We knew there would be life after high school."
Even under such constraints Huber won her first state championship as a sophomore, at 800 meters, and then added titles at 800 and 1,600 in her junior and senior years. But running never monopolized her energies. She played the flute in the school marching band, and in the fall was an all-state field hockey player.
Stern became the Villanova women's coach in the fall of 1984, and Huber was the first athlete he recruited. By his own admission, he was naive in the ways of big-time college sports. He spent a grand total of $4.50 in pursuit of Huber, the price of a meal at the Pit, the so-nicknamed campus dining hall. "I didn't know what I was doing," he says.
"Of all the coaches, Marty called me the least," says Huber, who also made visits to North Carolina, Alabama, the University of Virginia and Tennessee. "I thought he didn't want me." But McNichol and Huber agreed that Villanova was the best place for her to reach her potential as a runner.
Still, the athlete who showed up at Villanova in the fall of 1985 bore little resemblance to the lithe young woman who would finish sixth in the Olympics three years later. In Seoul, Huber, who is 5'6", weighed 107 pounds; when she entered Villanova she was about 25 pounds heavier. She campaigned to be allowed to play field hockey in the fall rather than run cross-country, which she thought was boring. But Stern, who preached a high-intensity, low-mileage program, persuaded her otherwise. That season Huber lost nine pounds. In the spring she cut her 1,500 best to 4:21.15 and won that event and the 3,000 at the Big East Championships.
Huber returned to school for her sophomore year fully committed to Stern's training regimen, and she continued to shed pounds. "I went home after a month," she says, "and my parents were going to yank me out of school because I'd lost so much weight." After convincing her parents that she wasn't malnourished, just fit, Huber finished 29th in the NCAA cross-country meet to earn All-America honors. Indoors, she won her first NCAA title, at 3,000. But it was in the 1987 NCAA outdoors that Huber really made her collegiate breakthrough.