Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rejoice, We Conquer: Alberto Salazar Boston Marathoner
Part III

One constant certainty for Salazar is that his Catholic faith was of primary importance to his family, for they made a huge sacrifice to prove it. Born in Cuba in 1958, Salazar grew up in the United States and not Havana was because of his father, Jose Salazar’s commitment to his Catholic faith. Che Guevara forbid the building of a chapel in a community-development project—the plans of Jose Salazar, a civil engineer. When Fidel Castro did not overturn this decision, Jose realized their orders were only the beginning, and the denial of religious freedom would follow. The Salazars fled Cuba that day.
Salazar shared, “Even though my father was in a relatively high position of power, prestige, and importance, turning his back on the Catholic Church was not worth it, so he decided to get us out of the country. Politics had been his whole life, Castro was someone he was very close to, and he was enamored of him. But that was probably the only thing he could have done that would have made my dad turn his back on him.” As he shared his father’s story, I found it hard to grasp the very same two men whose names riddle history books, and whose iconic images color our pop world had such a profound impact upon Salazar’s life. I asked Salazar is it was remotely possible for him to measure what effect his father’s decision had upon his faith. He replied by saying, “It something that impacted me and continues to impact me because it showed that he put his Catholic faith above everything else; there was nothing more important. My father’s example is something that has stuck with me all my life. Our faith is that important to him and it should have that same importance to us as well. His decision, his commitment, that risk he took for us reaffirms to me this should be the most important thing.”

For many years, his faith was not the most important thing in his life. Salazar admits, “Although I was Catholic and had a Catholic faith, for many years my focus was on running. I loved running and wanted to be the best runner in the world. I wanted to be a world record holder—that was my primary motivation.” He adds, “I went through a phase in college where I was involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the epitome of born again Christian groups, and that became much more important to me at that point in my life. I was trying to live much more of a faith filled life, but not necessarily through the Catholic Church, even though I had been going to Mass. But in the 1980s, I went with my family to Medjugorje, in what was formerly Yugoslavia, a holy place where the Blessed Mother has appeared and speaks to young people. That trip really brought me back to the Catholic Church, to the faith, where I was able to realize God’s graces in the religious tradition of my youth. I believe that the Blessed Mother is giving these messages and it’s nothing new. Her message is to do these things: pray, pray the Rosary, listen to her Son, Jesus. It’s simply to ‘do these things.’ And all of a sudden I realized ‘Wow! It’s a blueprint, she’s simply reminding us. It’s been the same message for 2000 years.’ It’s not rocket science. For me, it was an impetus to go back to the Church and to do the things the Church offers you.”
Although Salazar kept his faith in the background for most of his running career, the 53.75-mile Comrades Marathon in Durban, South Africa in 1994 served as a turning point. His experience at Medjugorje and the implementation of the Blessed Mother’s message led him to such a deeper, lived faith so much so that Salazar could identify with the words of Ryan Hall, a world class runner. Through Hall’s faith community Athletes in Action, he came to believe he was “No longer a runner who happens to be a Christian, I was a Christian who happens to run.” Salazar said, “That complete shift didn’t occur for me until 1994 when I ran an ultra marathon in South Africa. That was the first time that it was really and completely ‘I am going to do this to share my faith.’ Before that, I could not honestly say running for the Lord is the #1 reason I am doing this. Praying the Rosary got me through.” Not only did Salazar win that race, but he gave all credit to God. “It was a miracle.” he said “I should not have finished at all. The Lord did it.” His faith was now in the foreground, where it has remained and developed much like his career.

Images: Arturo Mari / Associated Press
Runner for Christ

Monday, April 19, 2010

Rejoice, We Conquer: Alberto Salazar Boston Marathoner
Part II

As a three time champion of the New York Marathon and victor of the epic “Duel in the Sun” the 1982 Boston Marathon, it’s hard to believe that just one day can foretell so much about a person’s life. I smiled as I could easily imagine a young Salazar, now a coach with Nike’s Oregon Project, succeeding in his own rite while advising his pre-teen peer competitors with specific strategies. Early on, Salazar saw his own gifts as a runner and a “coach.” Given the stereotype of runners as fitness freaks with healthy hearts, it is equally difficult to imagine just how many times Salazar almost died while running; yet, what may be more surprising is that each time he was confronted with death, he was not afraid.

At eleven years of age, Salazar witnessed death when he saw a young boy drown in his neighborhood pond. Even at such a young age, he was able to pray to the Blessed Mother saying, “When I die, don’t let me be scared.” His prayer, atypical for a child, let alone a healthy one, was answered years later at the popular Falmouth Road Race in Cape Cod in August of 1978. Salazar ran so hard that afterwards he collapsed from extreme heat exhaustion and was administered last rites in the race tent. Although his recollections of the experience are vague, he shares, “The most important part of that event is that I truly believed I was about to die. And I had a peace that I was going to be seeing Christ momentarily and I wasn’t scared.”

Since Falmouth, Salazar’s experiences with death have followed him in his running and coaching careers. Four years later at the 1982 Boston Marathon, Salazar pushed his physical limits to the extent that after winning, he received six liters of fluids intravenously. In 2007, Salazar encountered death yet again with a severe heart attack, but despite these setbacks, Salazar reaffirms his faith and belief. “While coaching, I had my heart attack just 100 yards from here (on Nike’s campus) where I flat lined for 14 minutes. My sons were with me when I woke up for the first time at the hospital and I said ‘I’ve got to go somewhere. I’ve got to go now.’ And they said ‘where do you need to go?’ And I said ‘well, I’m speaking to a woman.’ And they said ‘who are you speaking to?' and I said ‘I don’t know but it’s either the Blessed Mother or one of the saints.’ I believe the Blessed Mother was there and comforting me. Again, I wasn’t scared at the end.”

Training, discipline and a high threshold for pain enable runners like Salazar to push the limits. Considering what he has endured, how and why does he continue to run and coach? The obvious and immediate answer is that he does not fear death. However, the more one learns about Salazar the more one understands what keeps him alive is his deep love for running, his Catholic faith, and what one teaches him about the other.

Photo Credits:
Brent Humphreys/Redux, For The New York Times
Canadian Running

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Rejoice, We Conquer: Alberto Salazar Boston Marathoner
Part I

Tomorrow, April 19 is the third Monday of the month which means the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (can you name the other 3?) and the State of Maine will celebrate Patriots’ Day. While this civic holiday commemorates the anniversary of the first battles of the American Revolutionary War, it also shares recognition with the world's oldest annual marathon, the Boston Marathon. Now it in 114th year, the Boston Marathon is one of the world's best-known road racing events. It is exclusive, competitive and rife with tradition, three characteristics that are synonymous with the very idea of a marathon.

According to The Marathon run turns 2,500 in Greece, and Boston, Jimmy Golen, AP sports writer notes that “Monday's Boston Marathon will help kick off a year of celebration to mark two and a half millennia since the Battle of Marathon that gave birth to the 26.2-mile race. Historians say the victory by the outnumbered Greeks over the Persians on the Plains of Marathon might have saved democracy. According to legend, a Greek messenger ran from Marathon to Athens to spread the news of the victory. After arriving, he said, "Rejoice, we conquer." And then he died of exhaustion.”

This three-part blog posting will feature two-time Boston marathon championship runner, Alberto Salazar. Salazar is known as the victor of the epic “Duel in the Sun,” the 1982 Boston Marathon. Fighting his opponent Dick Beardsley through 26 miles into the noonday sun, he pulled away in an exciting sprint finish and collapsed at the end. Similar to that first marathon runner, Salazar testifies to the way running and his faith has afforded him with a platform where he has rejoiced and conquered. Unlike that first marathon runner, he did not die, but he has come remarkably close not once, but many times.

Alberto Salazar: In running and in faith, Death has no victory

At the young age of twelve, Alberto Salazar was certain of two things:
1. He could run forever and
2. With prayer, he wasn’t afraid to die.
As a former marathon world record holder and someone who has stood at death’s door several times, Salazar’s bold claims were prophetic. What may be even more surprising is the way in which one claim has proven the other to true.

Salazar first realized he was a distance runner at St. Bartholomew’s elementary school in Needham, MA at the annual school field day, Salazar did not fare well in the sprint races, but when he heard the longest run was a 600 meter race, he thought “Well, that’s a distance race. I’m going to win that.” And on that day he won the first and perhaps shortest race of an incredible running career.

Something more than a successful distance runner was born that day. Beyond the organized races, Salazar recalls what he learned from a game best described as “group tag”—one person is “it” and tags another who also becomes “it” and that continues until everyone is tagged. “I wasn’t the fastest” he said, “but I figured if I could run straight away from people and run far, they couldn’t catch me. I could make them tired and consequently, I was always the last kid singled out. I remember advising them, ‘if you want to catch me, you need to organize a relay team. Get two or three guys, come out, and get another two or three who will then have the stamina to tag me.’ In sixth grade, I already had it figured out that I could run forever.”

Photo Credits:
USA Today Images
Duel in the Sun on Amazon
Brian Lanker/SI

Friday, April 9, 2010

Opening Day: What it reveals about us

The late A. Bartlett Giamatti was the President of Yale University, a philosopher and the Commissioner of Major League Baseball for all but short five months. He was also an author. In Take Time for Paradise, he wrote

It has long been my conviction that we can learn far more about the conditions, and values, of a society by contemplating how it chooses to play, to use its free time, to take its leisure, than by examining how it goes about its work.

Fans are advised to arrive to Washington Nationals Park by 10:00 a.m. Upon hearing this, I knew a two hour window before game time indicated one thing: the President must be throwing the ceremonial first pitch. I love this 100 year old tradition, even if Obama wore bad jeans last year, or can’t throw strikes. I’m not convinced that baseball remains America’s official past time, but I do think the fact that every President since William Howard Taft has made a point to get out to the yard for its inaugural game, speaks to Giamatti's  claims. He adds:

If there is a truly religious quality to sport, then, it lies first in the intensity of devotion brought by the true believer, or fan. And it consists second, and much more so, in the widely shared, binding nature—the creed-like quality—of American sport.
Even in an increasingly secular place like San Francisco, the Giants hold a faithful following. So much so, that the home opener is played during the day. Ah! The sweet day game; what leisure. It is time away from work and even better—from school. For 42 years, Brother Draper, the iconic Dean of Students at SI posted a typed document daily, verified by his initials “dd, sj” (for Doug Draper, SJ) in the faculty room. It might strike some as odd or dated considering the multitude of other technological resources, but said list was helpful. If a student had a serious illness, Brother might include necessary information beside his name. If a student was with her traveling team in Chile for a soccer tournament, faculty was aware of the unexcused absence. And on one day of the year, I think it is fair to say at least 5% of the student body’s names appeared in that courier type: Opening Day. Brother Draper printed this list without guile. The following students are at Candlestick (or in recent years Pac Bell/AT&T) Park. It’s a shame no student had the acumen to call upon Giamatti’s words to earn an “excused” versus “unexcused absence.”

Standing in front of Nationals Park on Sunday night—the day prior to opening day for Major League Baseball and AT&T Park tonight—the day before the Giants' home opener, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the sport of baseball and what it reveals about America/Americans as one might do about a religious community while standing outside a church. Undoubtedly, AT&T is a cathedral; its field is hallowed ground. On the other coast, Nationals Park is bringing rebirth to a blighted area of our nation's capital; its locker room dubbed "the oval office" holds conversations about winning and losing, faith and hope. The red, white and blue bunting that adorns the interior and exterior of both venues indicates a feast day is upon us. There is something sacred about opening day and lucky for SI students, they won't have to miss class thanks to spring break this week. I just hope after President Obama threw that ceremonial first pitch, he yelled “Play Ball!” God Bless America. Play Ball!

Photo Credits

Monday, April 5, 2010

Age: It’s Just a Number—Right?

I am forever indebted to John McCain (R-AZ). Every time my mother makes an attempt to tell me she can’t do something because she is too old, I respond “Mom, sorry, but McCain ran for President of the United States at 72 years of age." In fact he’s seeking re-election for his seat in the Senate right now.” What can she possibly say to that?

Age is just a number, right? Perhaps it is, but I can’t help from thinking that according to Taylor Swift's "Fifteen," the unofficial theme song of my girls' cross country team, that it's something more. ‘Cause when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you they love you, you’re gonna believe them. In other words, we "grow in age and in wisdom." Luke's Gospel tells us that Jesus did too.

But what strikes me about final game of this epic NCAA March Madness is the age of the two head coaches. One is the paragon of a coach who has grown in age and wisdom, and well, just take one look at Brad Stevens, head coach of the Butler Bulldogs and you can’t help but ask “how old is he?” At first glance, you might think he is Gordon Hayward’s older brother. When I read that he graduated from college in 1999, I immediately uttered “Oh my God!”

At the other end of the hardwood stands one Mike Krzyzewski, a man who has been coaching longer than Stevens has been alive. With his 867 wins, "Coach K" is a qualified response to a question I raised about John Wooden: “Could his incredible record winning of 10 NCAA titles in his last 12 seasons happen today?” When Duke emerged as the only #1 seed to make it to the Final Four, I looked at him and raised the question: “wait, now how old is he?” once again. Who would have thought that listening to E Street Radio on Holy Saturday would answer my question. Although initially suprised, my friend Eileen was delighted to hear Krzyzewski DJ for nearly two hours. "That makes sense" she thought, "they're about the same age." The Boss is 60, Krzyzewski is 63. Springsteen is known as the "hardest working man in Showbiz." Perhaps the final game will prove Coach K is that of college hoops.

Every Holy Week, I am humbled by the fact that Jesus’ ministry began at 30 and ended with his death at 33. In three short years, Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man transformed the world. Age may be a number, it may even be a state of mind but the truth remains: Christ's message is one for all ages. In this Easter season, we are called to remember Jesus Christ yesterday, today and forever. Happy Easter!