On June 26, Steve Holman finally could gush a little. The Arlington resident and Georgetown University graduate won the 1,500-meter run at the U.S. outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Ore. It was something he never had done before. He was first at last.
This time, the postrace quotes were different. He didn't have to look into the paper and read the words others had used to describe him after other major races: "choker," "head case," or the sufferer of a "mental breakdown." He didn't feel compelled to hide from other runners, the way he did after the 1,500 at the 1996 Olympic Trials, when he was expected to win and finished 13th.
"He got the piano off his back," said Frank Gagliano, Holman's coach now and at Georgetown.
How hard was it for Holman to win at the U.S. championships? It took months of depression and a psychologist. It took a month with a fractured shin, a stationary bike and a life-changing decision.
"I remember how I thought I never thought I was ever going to recover [from the Olympic Trials], how I couldn't forgive myself," Holman, 29, said. "I think I was crippled by those negative thoughts. If I had never won a national championship, it would have been a sad story. This is validation--at last."
Now, Holman has a chance to go a step further--to win at the world outdoor championships, which begin Saturday in Seville, Spain. The first round of competition in the 1,500 is Saturday, the semifinals Sunday and the final Tuesday.
Holman has spent a good chunk of this decade wondering how something at which he is so gifted could be so agonizing. As a senior at Georgetown in 1992, he was hailed as the next great American miler by Steve Scott and Jim Spivey, great milers themselves. He made the 1992 U.S. Olympic team by running the 1,500 in 3 minutes 36.48 seconds at the trials.
Still, as golden as his legs seemed, they were showing cracks. He failed to win an NCAA outdoor title in the 1,500 until 1992, finishing eighth in 1990 and seventh in 1991. And in 1995, he didn't run well enough at the U.S. championships to reach the world championships. After that failure, Holman optimistically told Runner's World magazine his fortunes soon would turn because, "I can't sink any lower." But a year later, he did.
In the 1996 trials at Atlanta's Olympic Stadium, when making a second Olympic team could have eased the pain of his recent disappointments, Holman finished next to last in the final. Afterward, the wife of competitor Paul McMullen called Holman a "choker," Jason Pyrah called him a "head case," and Jim Sorenson said Holman had a "mental breakdown."
Meanwhile, Gagliano put his arm around Holman and walked him through a tunnel underneath the stadium. "I love you," Gagliano said. He then told Holman to jog back to the hotel. Holman started back, but about halfway there he almost collapsed.
"It just hit me there what had happened," he said. "I was so distraught. I couldn't see anything. I couldn't process. I was so mortified and embarrassed. I was so humiliated."
When he and his family went to dinner a few hours later, he was so distraught he exited the hotel through the back door, afraid to be seen by other runners. "This is the worst day of my life," Holman said that night.
Holman ran in Europe later that summer, but didn't place well and returned to Arlington earlier than planned. "Why should I stay here and just embarrass myself?" he said to his mother, Janet Holman, over the phone one night.
In June 1997, he finished second at the national championships, but was disqualified after the race for interfering with another runner--again leaving him unable to compete at the world championships.
Two months later, at a meet in Belgium, he ran a career-best 3:31.52, making him the third-fastest American ever in the 1,500, but inside Holman was a mess. "He would call and say, 'Give me a Bible verse. Tell me why this is happening to me,' " Janet Holman recalled. "But I couldn't tell him. I didn't know."
Holman started seeing a psychologist. "I couldn't really figure out why I was given all this talent and then would go and shoot myself in the foot," Holman said.
His life got worse in 1998. A stress fracture developed in his left shin that fall, and by December it still hadn't healed. He wasn't making much money running, and he couldn't find a tenant for a property that he bought and renovated off Logan Circle.
"It was the closest I ever came to quitting," Holman said. "Everything was in jeopardy. I just said to myself that for the month of December, I was going to cross-train as hard as I possibly can. I said if I can do this, I can make it.
"I was riding the stationary bike for like 2 1/2 hours a day. I cross-trained like a maniac. And then when I started running, I was in incredible shape."
Six months later, he won at the U.S. championships, running with control, patience and aggressiveness. "A lot of athletes would have packed it in after all of the criticism," said Gagliano, who told Holman the very same "I love you" after the win.
"Everyone attacked his heart," Gagliano added. "But heart is different than confidence. He had a confidence problem. He never had a heart problem."
Suddenly, there's a lot going right in Holman's life. On July 1, he found renters for the apartment. On July 27, he got engaged to Teresa Gilliams in London after dating for almost two years.
Now, Holman sees a larger challenge: trying to win a world championship. But he also sees more to life. "I used to define myself as how I ran," Holman said. "All along, everyone tried making excuses for me . . . but I knew that it was a function of confidence. Once I separated the person from the performance, I overcame it."
Taking on the World
Local competitors in world track and field championships in Seville, Spain, Saturday through Aug. 29:
Whitman High School
Georgetown, lives in Arlington
Lake Braddock High School
Reebok Enclave, lives in Reston
Georgetown, lives in Reston
Eleanor Roosevelt High School
Meredith Rainey Valmon
Reebok Enclave, lives in Silver Spring
Reebok Enclave, lives in Arlington