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Can the American 10,000-meter record holder defy critics, break up the Africans and medal in London?
Forty-eight years have passed since an American man has won an Olympic medal in the 10,000 meters. That’s the sort of acidic fact that stokes Alberto Salazar’s competitive rage. Once the brash, force-of-nature runner who, in the early 1980s, strung together three consecutive New York City Marathon wins and ran the fastest time in the world at the 1981 race, Salazar is now the venerable, meticulous Nike Oregon Project coach who believes that his star pupil, 25-year-old Galen Rupp, the fastest American ever at 10,000 meters and 5,000m indoors, is destined to end the drought.
The Cuban-born Salazar, raised from the age of 2 in Wayland, Mass., became famous for his brazen declarations: “If somebody runs 2:10 tomorrow, I’ll run 2:10,” he told reporters in 1980 the day before his first marathon, where he stunned the world by finishing first in 2:09:41, a New York City Marathon course record and the fastest debut ever at the time.
Salazar’s unrelenting work ethic and alpha male arrogance ignited a fire that pushed him through epic race battles, but also led to a painful decline, early retirement and soul-crushing depression. Salazar knows what it takes to be a world-beater, and he’s invested 12 years in coaching Rupp and instilling nearly the opposite of what he did as a pro. Through incremental progressions, microscopic physiological scrutiny and tempering the competitive fire so it doesn’t engulf, Salazar is molding Rupp into a beautifully fluid, well-rounded champion. The amiable, down-to-earth Rupp has no objections. “I’ve been real happy with the way things have gone and I wouldn’t change a thing,” Rupp says.
Medaling in the Olympic 10,000m would require beating the consistently dominant Africans. “We’re not at all intimidated by the Africans; they’re great runners but there’s so many of them. With our [American] runners, we have so few of them that we have to do everything perfect,” says Salazar. Doing things perfectly comes at a price, but it’s one Salazar and Rupp are willing to pay.