Villanova Track Blast From The Past
June 6, 2001
Arguably, Marty Liquori has been able to ride the crest of every big wave that has hit the sport of running in this country. When high schoolers first began breaking four minutes in the mile, he got up on that wave, becoming the third (and still one of only four) to accomplish this amazing feat. When Villanova head coach James "Jumbo" Elliott's program was heading into its most prolific period, this Cedar Grove, N.J., native hopped right in. When Americans were ascending the world ranks in middle distance running, Liquori was there, ranking tops in the world in 1969 and 1971 in the 1,500-meter and mile events, and then in 1977 in the 5,000-meter run.
But it has been off the track -- though still very close to it -- that Liquori has developed his particular talent for finding and riding the really big waves. Specialized sporting good stores that capitalized on the growing popularity of running? Liquori was there with Athletic Attic, the first chain of such stores. Books and videos? Been there, done that -- even before there was Jane Fonda and Tae Bo. As for broadcast television, Liquori is widely regarded as the voice and face of televised commentary for running and any number of other endurance sports.
The secret to Liquori's success? The secret may be that there never has been a secret. Or even a blueprint.
"I didn't have a plan," Liquori, now 52, says from Gainesville, Fla., where he has lived for nearly 30 years. "My philosophy has always been that this was a year-by-year thing. Even my show on ESPN ("Saucony Running and Racing"). It's been on for 14 years now. At first we were just a summer replacement show and I thought this would be a year-by-year thing."
Even Liquori's foray into television commentary was not a planned move -- just an ability to react uncannily well to the vagaries of life.
"The whole commentary thing started in 1972," Liquori says. "I was training for the Olympics, for the 1,500 meters. I got hurt some months before the Games, and ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' asked me to do some commentary, but only on the 800s and the 1,500s then. I did it for the next 25 years."
Perhaps Liquori's finance major from Villanova helped stoke his clearly entrepreneurial spirit, but he also considers himself blessed to have begun his career under two coaches who, he says, encouraged their athletes to think for themselves. As a prep at Essex Catholic High School in Newark, N.J., he ran for Fred Dwyer, himself a successful Wildcat miler in the early 1950s. Then, at Villanova, Liquori ran for Elliott.
One of the qualities Liquori still appreciates most about Elliott was his mentor's ability to create a "teachable" training system that his runners could replicate for and by themselves. After graduation from the Main Linein 1972, Liquori largely coached himself until he retired in 1980, following the U.S. government's decision to boycott the Moscow Olympics. During his career, he achieved career bests of 3:52.2 in the mile and 13:15.1 in the on-track 5K.
"It wasn't so complicated that it wasn't teachable," Liquori says of Elliott's training methods. "So many coaches today try to create something that enables them to have a mystique and have guru status over their athletes."
Liquori also admits to engaging in what is now called cross-training, especially during his time at Villanova.
"When I was injured I rode the (stationary) bike, and we did water running, too," Liquori recalls. "And I played water polo, too, there at Villanova. I don't know if that was such a good idea, though. I think I broke my nose twice doing it."
The current re-emergence of young American middle distance runners gives Liquori cause to hope that more coaches and athletes are returning to the methods which made Americans so competitive on the world scene through the 1970s.
"I think they are working harder and smarter again," Liquori says. "And they're also getting away from doing whatever 'Runner's World' (magazine) was telling people to do. Too many coaches, I think, were relying on that."
A little-known fact of Wildcat track history is that Liquori originally was University of Pennsylvania-bound. As a 4:13 miler heading into his senior year of high school, he was a well-regarded prospect, but it wasn't until he popped a 4:04 mile split at the Penn Relays that Liquori says he decided he "had to pursue running 100 percent" and therefore give Villanova a serious look. His 3:59.8 mile a couple months later only confirmed that decision.
By the time Villanova became a serious option, Liquori had already visited -- and ruled out -- any West Coast schools like UCLA or the University of Southern California. What appealed to Liquori most about Villanova wasprecisely what repelled him from the West Coast schools.
"They told me exactly the thing I didn't want to hear," Liquori says of the other schools. "They told me about how they were these 'full track teams,' with hammer throwers and shot putters, and how they could win the teamchampionships. What they should have told me was 'we concentrate on relays and middle distance.' I didn't like that (West Coast) atmosphere. I'm guess I'm just more of a Penn Relays, Madison Square Garden kind of a guy."
After his freshman year at Villanova, when Liquori made the U.S. Olympic team bound for Mexico City in October 1968, Liquori then became the youngest person at age 19 to participate in an Olympic 1,500-meter finals. Even after such heady success at a young age, he found plenty to challenge and excite him during the rest of his racing career. He scored numerous IC4A, NCAA and U.S. open championship titles. He won nine Penn Relays watches. He set American records in the 2,000 meters, the two-mile and the 5,000 meters.
But life has dished a few rough waves at him which he's also had to ride. About eight years ago, Liquori was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia -- not that he'll admit to much suffering on the disease's account. A six-month regimen of chemotherapy, he'll say with true distance runner's stoicism, left him feeling "under the weather for that time," but he states it has no impact on his day-to-day life now.
"I'm in remission," Liquori says. "It will affect my life in the future, but not right now."
Liquori's current home base of Gainesville is also the result of another rogue wave. Liquori's original career plan was to go to law school at Villanova, but the school time he had to miss for the 1968 Olympics caused the admissions department there to delay his law school entrance for a year. Instead of waiting around, though, he instead took the NCAA post-graduate scholarship money he had been awarded and headed south to train and try out a new career path.
"I ended up (going) down to (the University of) Florida and (taking) some courses in their communications program," Liquori says.
The fit with communications and journalism proved far better for Liquori and today he is somewhat relieved that Villanova Law School's admissions department was so inflexible.
"I'm always thankful I never became a lawyer," Liquori says. "As Fred Dwyer said, 'There will be plenty of lawyers but you have a special talent for running.'"
Most weekends of Liquori's life are now occupied with traveling to road race and triathlon sites for his ESPN show. And when his activities don't revolve around running and racing, nowadays they more than likely revolve around his rediscovered passion for guitar playing and jazz music.
"I was playing back when I was 15 and 16, but then I didn't for the next 30 years," Liquori says. "About 3 or 4 years ago, I picked it up again."
Weekday gigs backing a women's jazz vocal group bring him before a whole new kind of audience, but he is bemused that so many people in his other audience are surprised at his musical abilities.
"There was a picture of me in a magazine playing guitar," Liquori says, "and people were surprised that I had another hobby."
For once, maybe, Liquori will admit to having a plan: "My plan now is to do less of everything else and more guitar playing."
If nothing else, it just goes to prove that life often does come full circle -- especially when you're a runner.