Former Wildcat standout reflects on illustrious career on the Main Line.
Jan. 19, 1999
In the canon of collegiate track and field, Dick Buerkle probably qualifies as the patron saint of walk-on athletes. The Rochester, NY native only took up running in his senior year of high school and came to Villanova without a scholarship. Twelve years later, he was a U.S. national champion and Olympian.
Oddly enough, he applied to Villanova for purely academic reasons.
"It was a teacher at another high school who told me about the track program there," said Buerkle, now 51. " When he asked me if I knew about Jumbo Elliott, I said, "Who's he?" But then, when I visited campus with my parents that June (before enrolling), we met with Jumbo and he was so nice to me. He didn't know me from Adam, but he was really nice and that impressed me."
Under the tutelage of Elliott, Buerkle began the gradual escalation into running excellence that few would have predicted when he ran just 4:28 in the mile as a high school senior.
Competing at the IC4A championships as a member of the freshmen cross-country squad (freshmen were then prohibited from competing on varsity squads), Buerkle took 7th overall in the frosh race and was 4th on the Wildcat team.
"Jumbo and (assistant coach) Jim Tuppeny said a lot to encourage me, but I'll always remember how Tuppeny posted this list in the locker room later with comments written on them about our IC4A race," recalled Buerkle. "Next to the first three guys' names, he had written 'Great, great, great' but next to mine he wrote '
The Greatest'. That really made a huge impression on me."
Injuries pretty much decimated Buerkle's sophomore year. He began his junior year overweight and out of shape, but by the outdoor season, his ascension to walk-on heaven occurred. "I broke 9:00 in the two-mile and a couple weeks later I broke the school record, too," said Buerkle. "After I broke nine is when Jumbo gave me a scholarship."
Before he graduated from Villanova in 1970 with a degree in Spanish studies, Buerkle had assembled a slew of All-American awards and become something of an expert in finishing third at NCAA championships.
"Third in the indoor two-mile my junior year, third in the indoor two-mile and third in the outdoor three-mile my senior year," he said ruefully.
During the next couple of years after graduation, Buerkle tried his hand at jobs in sales and teaching, while trying also to figure out exactly where running would fit in.
"I ran in the 1972 Olympic trials (for the 5,000 meter run). Without being in very good shape, I got 8th. I had never really thought I could actually become an Olympian, but I realized that if I worked out, I could probably do it," said Buerkle.
Thus began a four year odyssey that eventually led him to Montreal and the 1976 Olympic team. He won his first open national title in 1974 and embarked on travels abroad that would expand his training repertoire as much as it did his mind.
"You know I've never felt as if I really liked competition," he said. "All the anxiety and stress and the agony of waiting for a race to begin . . . but I loved traveling and running took me to some amazing places. I also learned a lot about training from those travels and talking to different athletes and coaches."
The 1976 Olympics were something of a disappointment: Buerkle finished 9th in the fastest Olympic 5,000 meter heat ever run to that point and narrowly missed qualifying for the finals. But the Olympic experience was more memorable for agony of two different kinds.
"My wife Jean (a 1971 graduate of Villanova's nursing program) was pregnant with our first child then," he remembered. "There she was, walking around Montreal, just huge with pregnancy. She passed out once, but she was telling me 'Oh, don't worry about me.' Yeah, right."
The athletes' living conditions also rank high on Buerkle's hit parade of bad sporting experiences.
"Ten athletes in what was basically a two-bedroom apartment," he said. This was supposed to be the pinnacle of our athletic careers and here we were, shoved into an athletic ghetto with all these testosterone-laden people. I was miserable."
Nevertheless, greater glory was still to be had. In 1978, at the then-ripe-old running age of 30, Buerkle set or tied a world record in the indoor mile, depending on how you measure these things. Timing systems being what they weren't then, his time of 3:54.9, recorded during a meet at the University of Maryland, was rounded up to 3:55.0 which is what the existing record was. A Sports Illustrated cover followed soon thereafter with his winning performance at the Millrose Games.
Buerkle again made the Olympic team in 1980, but didn't see Olympic action because of the politically motivated U.S. boycott that year and he officially retired from world-class competition in 1981.
"It wasn't a hard decision," he said. By that time, his family had expanded to include son Gabriel and daughters Lily and Tera. "Being an athlete consumes a disproportionate amount of resources in a family, and it was the right thing to do."
The Buerkle family has lived in Atlanta since 1979, after Dick experienced something of an epiphany during a Florida training trip. At the time, they had been living in the "snow belt" of Rochester.
"I was standing there on the track one day and I looked up at the blue sky and I realized -- I don't HAVE to live in Rochester . . . I had gotten hurt a couple of times there because I was basically training on ice, but you know when you're driven, you'll do these things," said Buerkle. A move to Atlanta ensued and life has been just fine without the ice or the lake-effect blizzards.
He returned to high school teaching seven years ago and today teaches Spanish and coaches cross-country and track at Dunwoody H.S., just outside Atlanta.
"It's never boring," said Buerkle. "That's what I really like about it. You run into the most amazing situations, from having to write some kid up for sexual harassment to dealing with kids who are living in their cars . . . But I get to talk to them about anything under the sun, just as long as it's in Spanish."
Buerkle makes his occasional forays into masters running, but his pledge to "family first" holds true. 27 years of marriage to Jean stand as proof of the success of that pledge.
"A lot of road races are early on a weekend morning anyway," he said. "I work about 70 hours a week and quite frankly there's nothing I like more than being able to lie in bed with my wife and read the paper instead."
More often these days, Buerkle finds himself working the lessons he learned as a runner into the lessons he now imparts as a teacher and coach.
"I feel privileged to have run for someone as great as Jumbo" he said. "You don't meet that many great people in life, but he was one of them. He somehow saw things in you that you never knew existed and he pulled them out of you."
Obviously his teacher knew what he was onto when he marked that freshman walk-on for greatness, and now it's the student's turn to pull greatness out of others.