The Transition: Steve Plasencia

Minnesota coach Steve Plasencia’s prolific running career spanned two Olympics, four World Championships and 38 countries.

Derek Wetmore

Steve Plasencia claims he merely âÄústumbled intoâÄù running as a sophomore in high school.

Considering his career, thatâÄôs like the president saying he stumbled into politics.

Plasencia, a five-time All-American with the Gophers, has on his resume two Olympic Games, four appearances at the World Championships and races in 38 different countries.

Today, as head coach of the menâÄôs cross country and track teams at his alma mater, PlasenciaâÄôs illustrious running career serves as a model for his aspiring athletes.

Coaching influence

From his days in high school through when he finally hung up his spikes, Plasencia considered himself a self-coached runner.

In high school, it was his gym teacher that convinced him to give running a try. Soon thereafter, some guy named Roy Griak showed up in PlasenciaâÄôs living room to recruit the distance runner.

Plasencia said he wasnâÄôt in awe of Griak because, at the time, he wasnâÄôt so immersed in the running community that he understood GriakâÄôs legacy.

During college, Placencia said he considered Griak, his cross country coaching predecessor, a father figure.

âÄúI think I was a little bit of a pain in the ass to Roy because I had some trials and tribulations and I was pretty stubborn with how I wanted to train,âÄù Plasencia said.

âÄúItâÄôs just like some of the guys now. What goes around comes around,âÄù he said while trying to fight a smirk.

Though Plasencia now draws parts of his coaching style from Griak and former Olympic silver medalist Dick Quax, he said ultimately heâÄôs always trusted his own instincts.

âÄúI was self-coached, and whether thatâÄôs a good thing or not, I became so ensconced in running that it was all I did,âÄù he said.

Plasencia ran under Quax when he ran for his first sponsor, Nike. But Quax returned to his native New Zealand, and Plasencia said he felt abandoned to a degree, so rather than switching coaches, he simply coached himself âÄî the obvious disadvantage being that it is often difficult to be a self-critic and have an objective perspective on oneâÄôs own running.

On the other hand, âÄúthe advantage in training yourself is no one has a greater interest in seeing it succeed than you do,âÄù Plasencia said.

Olympic endeavors

Plasencia finished eighth in the 10K at the 1987 World Championships, which he said set the stage for qualifying for his first Olympics the following year.

âÄúYou canâÄôt just all of a sudden decide, I think IâÄôm going to make the Olympic team,âÄù he said.

He added that the confidence he garnered from competing at such an elite level the previous year served as a launching pad to the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea.

âÄúThe Olympic Games were a neat experience. The first time making it, just because itâÄôs such a huge goal, it puts you in a different position and a new category of athlete for the rest of the time youâÄôre running,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúThat was a huge breakthrough for me.âÄù

The breakthrough came when he finish second at the Olympic trials in Indianapolis, which he said is his finest memory from running.

âÄúDefinitely a vivid memory,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúThere were four of us with 800 meters left and three were going to make the Olympics, so when someone made the move, it was a now or never type of situation.âÄù

When he got to Korea, however, he had pain in his shin, which he tried to alleviate with hydrotherapy.

âÄúI was freaking out, to be honest with you,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúI made the goal to get out of the pool and run ten days before the Olympics and I tried and I just said, âÄòOh, this still sucks. How about six days?âÄôâÄù

It was later diagnosed as a stress fracture in his shin âÄî only days before the Games.

âÄúThat was hard; it was a little disappointing. It was tough to even get out on the track,âÄù he said.

He had little choice but to compete, though. Aside from being consumed by the thrill of competing in his first Olympics, his father had recently undergone heart surgery but nonetheless made the trip.

After being assured by a doctor that the bones would not break in two, he taped his foot to provide support for his shin and ran âÄî but did not finish.

âÄúI was eighth in the world the year before so I felt that was the point in my career I could have done the most,âÄù he said. âÄúThe high of making the team is a good high, and having the stress fracture is a pretty dang low. Sometimes those things go hand-in-hand.âÄù

He said he considers the eighth-place finish at the World Championships in 1987 one of the highlights of his professional career, along with a 10th-place finish in the 1995 World Championships marathon.

His 10K career was at its peak in 1990, however, when he won United StatesâÄô championship after placing second in four previous tries. Later that year at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, he set a lifetime best time of 27 minutes, 45 seconds in the event.

In 1992, Plasencia once again qualified for the Olympic Games in the 10K, this time in Barcelona, Spain. He didnâÄôt make the finals that year either, but the memories still stick with him.

Upon returning from the Barcelona summer Games in 1992, Nike wanted him to run the New York City Marathon in November, which he said he wouldnâÄôt have been ready for.

He instead ran the California International Marathon in December and won by a second. Nike apparently wasnâÄôt happy with his decision, and he switched sponsor shoe companies to Asics.

He attempted to make one final run at the Olympics, but came up short when, in 1996 at the age of 39, he narrowly missed the cut in both the marathon and the 5K.

âÄú[The Olympic experience] was rewarding because you put so much into it and so much of you is wrapped into it that unfortunately, so much of how you feel is based on how racing is going,âÄù Plasencia said. âÄúTo have a period in your career where each time out, things go pretty good for you âÄî which I feel like I had âÄî itâÄôs a really good thing to have.âÄù

Plasencia said missing the 1996 Games meant it was time to find a new avenue, but ever the optimist, he was able to draw a positive from the door to professional running swinging shut.

âÄúIt was hard missing the cut, but the marathon always paid better. If you came away from the track trials in fourth place, you got nothing, but I got a pretty decent paycheck for taking fourth in the Olympic marathon trial,âÄù he said.

Lifelong friend and current Brigham Young University coach Ed Eyestone, who was PlasenciaâÄôs roommate at the Seoul Games, said it was tough knowing that PlasenciaâÄôs Olympic running days were likely over.

âÄúThere comes a time in every athleteâÄôs life when the Kenyans keep getting faster and our times ultimately slow down,âÄù Eyestone said.

He added, âÄúI think ultimately you just [understand] that itâÄôs not going to happen. ThereâÄôs a bit of melancholy, but the reality is you can look at your career, having run competitively through your twenties and thirties, and get that youâÄôre not going to be a 70-year-old man making Olympic teams still, so maybe itâÄôs time to get a real job.âÄù

Plasencia said that to avoid the roller coaster of highs and lows, he had to find balance in his life that put running in perspective.

âÄúPart of the trick is to develop coping strategies and other balance in your life,âÄù he said. âÄúI got to the point in my running career that I said, âÄòWhat the hell am I going to do next year? IâÄôve been doing this for so long.âÄôâÄù

Life path

Plasencia grew up in Crystal, Minn. and was recruited to run at the University of Minnesota.

Upon graduating with a degree in business in 1979, he spent 10 months training in altitude in Boulder, Colo. He then earned his masterâÄôs degree from the University of Oregon.

While he was training to run professionally in Eugene, he worked as the director of sports and respiratory medicine for Allergy and Asthma Associates.

Next, he worked as a cardiac rehabilitation therapist at EugeneâÄôs Sacred Heart Hospital. He never moved up the company ladder, but it was at a time when he was frequently traveling to Europe to run with Nike, so the stability was a benefit, he said.

It was there that Plasencia met his wife, Theresa. She was a student at a nearby medical school and was working at the hospital.

The two met in the treadmill room, the irony of which is not lost on Plasencia.

âÄúIsnâÄôt that romantic?âÄù he asked.