Anthony Famiglietti was feeling exceptionally loose-limbed when he walked into a coffee shop on the Upper West Side last Thursday. He had completed a morning training run earlier and was arriving from a session of physical therapy, so it was appropriate to attribute his ensuing volubility to a sense of general ease. But that wouldn’t come close to explaining the intellectual turns of a conversation with Famiglietti, who quickly showed that he is not only an Olympic steeplechase runner but also as an entrepreneur, artist, musician, filmmaker and amateur philosopher.
Consider his five-minute response to a query regarding the caveman-like beard he wore for most of the past year. After performing poorly at the 2007 U.S. Championships, he began growing his facial hair last October as a means to mark a transformation. What kind of a transformation? Well, not just an athletic one, that’s for sure.
“I do stuff like that just to shed my ego a little bit, anything to deconstruct my identity,” Famiglietti said. “I have so many different racing styles and so many different training styles. When I show up to a starting line, people don’t know what they’re going to get. I love that ever-changing openness of my racing. Changing my appearance helps deconstruct my identity in a way that frees me to do new things and explore my character. That’s the freedom of running; you can just be whoever you want.”
Such an answer might seem slightly too elaborate, but the enthusiasm and thoughtfulness with which Famiglietti talks banish any hint of bombast. Adopting a perpetually laidback manner, he peppers his dialogue regularly with the word “man,” affixing it to the end of almost any statement. And he speaks easily about his interests and influences, “crazy, avant-garde thinkers” ranging from the Dalai Lama to the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Famiglietti, clearly, is not your average professional athlete.
He grew up in Long Island and attended college at Appalachian State and the University of Tennessee, but he considers himself a New York City person at heart. For four years, until this past January, he lived on the Upper East Side (he has since moved to Tennessee because he was having problems getting access to a track with the special hurdles and water pit that a steeplechase runner needs). While in New York, Famiglietti ran Central Park’s six-mile loop several times each day, a practice that left him virtually alone among elite distance runners, who almost uniformly train in groups at great altitude to boost endurance.
Plodding among thousands of other New Yorkers barely 100 feet above sea level, Famiglietti had plenty of company but few who could challenge his limits. In his mind, choosing the city as a training locale was an asset, not a liability.
“It was tough unless you have a certain mind-set,” he said. “New Yorkers have a certain mind-set, so I took it and that New York work ethic and applied it to my running. I ran some phenomenal times while I was training here. There was no place that I wanted to be other than New York, and the energy I got here really compelled me.”
After turning professional in 2000, Famiglietti began putting up blistering times in a variety of long-distance events. He chose to run the steeplechase because he viewed it as the most challenging race. Few would argue that it is the most unusual. The steeplechase covers 3,000 meters and involves leaping occasionally over fixed hurdles and sometimes into a sloping water pit.
Famiglietti made the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, but he finished eighth in his preliminary race. Afterward, he moved back to New York and rededicated himself to his sport. Quicker times soon followed. By the time he arrived at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials earlier this summer, he was ready. Strengthened by a tough daily regimen and bedecked with a nine-month-old beard, he breezed to a victory. Such was his overall strength that his personal best times in the 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters and 10,000 meters would have been good enough to win those races at the trials.
But Famiglietti had strong misgivings about going to Beijing. Shortly after the trials, he declared that the bronze medal was his best possible result because of doping among other competitors, a remark that stirred controversy but he thinks helped scare cheaters away. He also considered boycotting the Games because of human rights issues in China. Ultimately, he chose to put politics aside and focus on athletics.
“I represented myself in a positive, peaceful way,” Famiglietti said. “I represented a lot of good things not just in my country but in life in general, and I think I got that message across. And if there’s a place that needs positive messages, maybe it’s there. Anytime you open a dialogue between two cultures, it’s a good thing.”
His results in Beijing were uneven. Famiglietti turned in a sterling performance in his preliminary race, setting a new personal best of 8:17.34. Against the world’s elite in the final two days later, he briefly made a charge to the front midway through the race before fading and finishing 13th, a result he attributed partly to respiratory problems stemming from pollution.
“The thinking was to get up front and string out the pace a little,” Famiglietti said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t breathing well. I tried to push as hard as I could, but I just didn’t have the legs to keep up.”
On Sunday, he won a 5,000-meter race in Providence, R.I., that marked the end of his season. For the first time in about a year, he plans to take a day off from training. For the future, he is thinking of moving to a longer distance, perhaps even the marathon, and intends to run in the 2012 Olympics in London.
In the meantime, Famiglietti will turn his attention to other projects. He recently started an apparel line named Reckless Running and remains active as both a musician and abstract painter, influenced primarily by the 1980s New York culture of hip-hop and graffiti art. About a year ago, a friend made Run Like Hell, a documentary film about him, and another called Run Reckless is in the works.
They are appropriate titles for someone whose enthusiasm and intensity define all he does, a fellow who waved away a question about his preparation once by explaining a simple credo: “Racing is about guts.”
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