Colorful Steeplechaser Goes For Olympic Bronze

The top U.S. steeplechaser, Anthony Famiglietti, says he hopes to win a bronze in Beijing. Why not gold? Because he doesn't cheat and says some of his competitors do. He credits his success to no longer eating pizza twice a day.

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In the steeplechase, competitors circle a 400-meter track seven-and-a-half times. In each lap, they encounter three hurdles and a water pit. That's right, a water pit. This Olympics, the top U.S. competitor in the steeplechase is Anthony Famiglietti. He's been known to sport a mohawk or beard while he races. As NPR's Mike Pesca reports, you have to look beyond the hair to understand what makes Anthony Famiglietti truly unusual.

MIKE PESCA: It was the spikes that grabbed him. As a kid, Anthony Famiglietti was too little for other sports.

Mr. ANTHONY FAMIGLIETTI (U.S. Olympic Steeplechaser): I was the skinniest kid on the block, shortest kid on the block. My brothers and sisters used to call me Webster.

PESCA: But even at 90 pounds, Famiglietti was an electric plug that needed an outlet. That's when a friend showed up to junior high with a pair of track shoes.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: Shoes with spikes in them. I thought it was the coolest looking thing.

PESCA: The boy from working-class Medford, Long Island was enamored.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: I even took a pair of my first running shoes, I took a punk rock bracelet that I had and duct taped the spikes into the bottom of the shoe, just to have a pair of spikes because I couldn't afford a pair.

PESCA: You won that race.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: I did.

PESCA: Not a lot's changed. Well, the music's no longer punk.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: Fam, as most everyone calls him, grooves to Tibetan monks before each race. He tries to shed ego - that's what the thick beard was about - while at the same time retaining his individualism.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: I think most athletes, unfortunately, tend to fit the stereotype of an athlete, where they try to just adhere to the way the rules are and the way things have always been done, and you just go out there and the performance speaks for itself.

PESCA: Famiglietti's event, in the literal sense, is filled with hurdles and traps. Where he trains is all the more remarkable. For years, Famiglietti ran the public venues of New York City, sneaking into the locked track on Roosevelt Island and dodging the elderly shufflers in Central Park. There, he would look up and draw inspiration from buildings his dad, a steam fitter, had helped construct. In 2003, Famiglietti took the steam fitter exam himself. It was one of those moments.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: You know, that acetylene torch in one hand, the spikes in the other hand. You make the decision. But my father, I think, was a little disappointed I decided to run. And I think at the time he didn't realize how fully talented I was and how far I could take it.

PESCA: He took it to the Olympic trials in 2004, where he made the team, and through Athens, where he banged into a hurdle, fell to last, then wound up passing almost half the field but still missed the finals. A blessing, he says. Hardship equals improvement in Famiglietti's world, a notion he sometimes takes to illogical extremes, as with matters of diet. Most elite athletes treat their bodies like finicky race cars. Famiglietti treats his like a garbage truck. They have nutritionists, he has Roma Pizzeria on 3rd Avenue.

Unidentified Woman: Hey, guys.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: Hey. White pizza…

I used to eat pizza so much, I'd eat it twice day, every day for just weeks at a time. And the other meal would probably just be cereal for breakfast.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

PESCA: In the past year, Fam's nutritional philosophy has evolved somewhat.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: My whole thing is if the furnace is burning hot enough, you can through anything in there. You could just eat whatever you wanted to. If you talk to my sister, she'll tell you some stories, man.

Ms. KRISTINA MERICI(ph): He can really just eat about - just about anything. He lived on macaroni and cheese as a kid. That and pizza.

PESCA: Kristina Merici is Famiglietti's sister.

Ms. MERICI: And I got to tell you, I sent him some Cheez Doodles and stuff right before that Olympic trial race, and I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERICI: …and I just couldn't believe what he did.

Unidentified Man: Steve Prefontaine would be proud of the pace that Famiglietti is setting. Pre was a frontrunner, Fam certainly is a frontrunner right now.

PESCA: Fam won this year's Olympic trials on the same track where Prefontaine built his legend. Unlike Pre, Fam probably won't challenge the world record. And while he sees the Olympics as a race for glory, he doesn't define glory as fame, medals or millions.

Mr. FAMIGLIETTI: When I look in the mirror at night, I ask myself: Am I tough enough? Am I going to have enough guts to really just get in there and just destroy myself? Because if you look at it, what my job really is every day is just pushing myself to complete physical, mental, emotional breakdown, doing it day after day after day, until that limit pushes a little bit further and extends, and then I get to that next limit and I keep pushing and pushing.

PESCA: Two nights from now in Beijing, Famiglietti faces the dominant Kenyans and athletes he told ESPN he thinks are doping. He's adopted the motto go for the bronze. In Famiglietti's mind, running on pizza has a certain logic, but running on drugs makes no sense. That would just lessen the challenge, exactly the opposite of what makes Famiglietti run.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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