Defiant and Determined

July 22, 2008, 1:13 p.m. (ET)
"I'm not the superhero Olympian. I'm the every guy," said the man who won the 3000m steeplechase at the 2008 US Olympic Track Trials.

Certainly, not "every guy" could make two Olympic teams the way Anthony Famiglietti did. The son of a steam fitter growing up on Long Island, N.Y., he initially rebelled against every idea that might have helped him succeed. Now 29, he looks back - with a laugh - at his evolution.

In his first race, he fainted.

It was field day in elementary school, and Famiglietti had been eating pizza and drinking soda all day. He went out too fast, and collapsed three-quarters of the way around the perimeter of the school.

"I was so upset I didn't finish because," he said, "I knew I was better than that."

Soon afterwards, Famiglietti found heaven in skateboarding. "I saw how dangerous and exciting it was. And it was just really free; I loved that," he said.

His father built a six-foot half pipe in the back yard but the more he improved, the more time he spent in the emergency room.

"I was that 10-year-old kid who'd be hanging off the back of your car, and you wouldn't even know it," he said.

Finally, the medical bills added up, and his parents confiscated his board.

But deprivation didn't lead to a running career. Truancy did. 

"I skipped a little school," Famiglietti confessed, and while he was doing penance, the attendance officer tried to recruit him for the high school cross-country team. (The officer was also a coach.)

Famiglietti had no interest. However, the 90-lb punk was interested in anything that had spikes. One day, a social studies classmate showed up with a pair of racing shoes. "Shoes with spikes? I thought it was the coolest," and in his sophomore year, he relented and tried running.

At his first cross-country practice, he was completely overmatched, bonked, and had to walk part of three-mile time trial. "I'll never be at that level," he thought. His coach convinced him to continue, and Famiglietti was a quick study. He watched everything the seniors did, and tried to stay with them step-for-step as long as he could. He also had a maniacal streak, and if the team did hill repeats, he would hammer hard to be the first one up and down while everyone else would run up and jog down.

"It was a great feeling to think, ‘I'm pushing myself more than I've ever pushed myself before,'" he said.  "And I would see results really quickly."

Still, when Famiglietti ran for Appalachian State University in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, his rebellious streak continued. "We were supposed to be doing all this summer mileage," he said, "but Long Island has some great beaches. I had to tell the coach I'd been running when I really wasn't."

Again, at his first long practice, Famiglietti crashed and walked. Again, he latched on to the team's top runners. As always, it worked.  In 1998, he won two Southern Conference titles (steeplechase and 5000m) and transferred to Tennessee where he later cut his hair into a mohawk and became the first American in 10 years to win an international steeplechase title, at the 2001 World University Games in Beijing.

After graduation, he stayed at Tennessee, but he skipped so many long Sunday runs that he started to tally up the missed distances and call them "ghost miles." He never made them up. "Even when I was running well, I was finding somewhere along the way to not put in all the work," he said. "I just had this instinct of: if my body wants to do it, I'll do it. If I don't, I'm not going to - because if I force myself, then I'm not going to enjoy it anymore."

Meanwhile, he was eating garbage. "I ate pizza everyday, twice a day for two and a half weeks. I think I had a longer streak than that, too," he boasted. "The third meal was probably cereal." The one time he realized he needed some meat, he was in Asia and thought it tasted so bad that his solution was to spoon it in along with big chunks of cake.

Despite his atrocious habits, he won the 2002 US national championship in the steeplechase and made the 2004 Olympic team by running "on pure guts and raw talent," he said.

In Athens, however, he smacked his knee on the solid-wood barrier toward the end of his opening heat, and was eliminated.

When he returned to the U.S., no one was left to push him anymore like the seniors he'd always chased. "You get to a certain level where you're the last man standing," he said. "Who do you train with?"

The answer was: no one.

"Once I took control, I started to grow up. No more ghost miles. Once I was accountable to myself, I started making breakthroughs," he said.

In 2005, he made the daring move to New York City, where state-of-the-art facilities were usually locked.

He did speed intervals on public tracks where people picnicked on the infield, pudgy joggers hogged the fast lane, and people ran in jeans. He'd run in Central Park and have to dodge taxis, tourist groups, and strollers. He would treat his tempo runs like time trials and proudly report his fast times to his old Tennessee coach George Watts. Watts would urge him to back off over the phone. But "backing off" wasn't in Famiglietti's vocabulary now.

In 2006, the versatile Famiglietti set four PRs from 1500 to10,000 meters but he was depleted. He followed great performances with poor ones.  In 2007, he won the 8km national championship and ran a new lifetime best for 5,000 meters (13:11.93) but a few meets later he could no longer recuperate.

"If you look at pictures from the [2007] US Championships, you can see how malnourished I was," he said. After missing the world championship team by one place, Famiglietti took time off, let go of his ego, and finally listened when people told him to change his diet.

One night, over a mixture of homemade couscous and berries that he didn't recognize because they were so alien to his regular menu, he thought, "If I saw myself eating this food, I'd beat the crap out of myself because it was so healthy. I'd make fun of myself for eating it," as if treating himself right indicated weakness. "I said, ‘You know what? Just eat it man.'"

Nutrition made a noticeable impact. After four weeks, he felt stronger, recovered quicker, and made steady progress. He also balanced his intense workouts with moderate ones, and his times dropped. In July, he won the 2008 Olympic Trials and with it, a chance to revenge the Athens mishap in Beijing.

Through it all, Famiglietti's intensity has remained, and whenever he speaks to recreational runners, his drive is contagious. 

He explains that he doesn't just run for his own gratification. He runs for those who have motivated him.

"I saw how happy they'd be when I'd run well," he said. "I love that feeling of giving back through my own effort.  It's not just for me; it's for those around me.  

"I'm trying to go into to Beijing with that same attitude. Here's a place where there's a lot of difficult things going on. What can I do, as far as my performance, to contribute in a positive way?

"People watch sports because they want to be moved. The Olympics are special because there are so many moving moments.  People push themselves at such a high level in the most difficult of circumstances. And they're not just pushing themselves, but each other to get over barriers in a way we don't get in regular competition.

"It's like when people were trying to send people to the moon. It was risky and you had to have an ego to think we could do that. But it was competition that got us there - competition from Russia and the world watching. I don't think we have that anymore.

"I think if I can dig deep and somehow put in a fantastic performance, that will translate in a way that the Chinese and everyone else who's watching around the world would say, ‘Let me challenge myself. Maybe you should step up and challenge yourself.'

"If people push themselves like we do at the Olympics, it would be a great thing, not only for China, but for everybody."


Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.