“I told him, ‘I don’t believe college was all I had. I know I have more in me.”
Robert “Rob” Novak is a runner who was on his way to the Olympics, until he was sidelined by a spate of injuries. Now he runs on tracks in Miami and, although he is far from Rio de Janeiro, his mind is focused on just one thing—making it to the 2016 Olympics.
That’s nothing new. Although he’s now 27, he’s been focused on the Olympics since his college days. As a youngster growing up in New Jersey, though, Novak did not seem destined to become a runner. Diagnosed with asthma, his doctor warned his mother to keep him away from high-intensity sports.
“As I was growing up through grade school, I was hospitalized for a week each year. In 6th grade, the doctor told me I had the lungs of a 65-year-old nonsmoking man and he told my mother that the only sports I should do were golf and bowling,” Novak recalls.
But in high school Novak yearned to play football. “My mom always made sure I had my medicine in case I needed it,” says Novak. It turned out that not only did Novak not need the medication, he was destined to become a runner, even back there in Bordentown, N.J., where he grew up.
“We were taking a physical fitness test my freshman year and I had to do push-ups and sit-ups and run a mile. I ran the mile in 4:52. My gym teacher came to me and told me, ‘You really should run cross-country because running 4:52 is really, really good.” The assistant track coach heard about it as well, says Novak, and told him, “If you did 4:52 without training, you could be really great.”
Those words turned out to be an understatement. Novak joined the track team and became one of the greatest prep half-milers that New Jersey has ever seen. Word spread among recruiters and Novak ended up at Seton Hall University on a full scholarship.
In college Novak established himself as one of the top 800-meter runners on the conference and national levels. But then, in his junior year, he sustained his first injury: planter fasciitis, a common runner’s problem that occurs when too much pressure is put on the planter fascia, one of the ligaments in the foot. Novak wasn’t overly concerned. “When you are in professional sports and you are performing at a certain level, it is inevitable you are going to get injured,” he said.
Despite the chronic pain, Novak continued to run, graduating with a Big East Championship and an IC4A Championship. He clocked a blazing 1:47.6 before graduation in 2009.
After college Novak joined the New York Athletic Club and achieved new heights just his first year out of school, achieving personal bests of 1:46.8 in the 800 meter and 3:40.9 for 1500 meters. A fresh face at the front of national level races in 2010, Novak placed third at the Olympic Development Penn Relays Mile, the Ryan Shay Road Mile and the Cigna Falmouth Mile.
Now focused on the Olympics, Novak continued at the New York Athletic Club. He also worked part-time at Home Depot; growing up the child of a single mom, who was raising four kids, he didn’t have the luxury of pursuing his athletic career full-time.
But he knew he was at a crossroads: either give up his dream of being a professional runner or take it to the next level. So he contacted legendary coach Frank Gagliano for an evaluation.
“I told him I wanted him to coach me post-college. “I told him, ‘I don’t believe college was all I had. I know I have more in me,’ and he told me, ‘Listen, from your form and your aggressiveness, I also see you have more,’” Novak recalls.
It was 2011. Novak was still training with his coach and had undergone physical therapy and was now pain-free. He also had taken a bride, Viviana, a Puerto Rican native. It was when Novak was in Trinidad and Tobago for a race that it was suggested to him that, because his wife is Puerto Rican, he would eligible to represent that country in the 2012 Summer Olympics. But that did not pan out and Novak eventually ended up in New Jersey, with a new coach, but still focused on his Olympic dream.
Novak was on track to compete in the qualifying trials until one day in May 2012, when, while finishing a workout, he felt a mild pain in his hamstring. He wasn’t concerned but the next month, while competing in Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., that injury caught up with him. “I had only 50 meters to go in an 800 meter race to qualify for the semi-finals when I felt a really bad cramp in my hamstring.” Tests showed an injury. The doctor taped it and the next day, in the semi-finals, Novak, who traditionally starts in the rear of the pack, was moving up in the field of runners as usual. “I was coming through the half-way point, then I was fourth. I moved up to third, and with 100 meters to go, I tried to start sprinting, but I couldn’t lift my right leg. I had no power.” He finished 12th overall. “Basically, my season was over. I had trained with everything I had. I knew I was ready to go but this little injury had prevented me from going to the Olympics. I was devastated,” he recalls.
That July, Novak’s wife received a job transfer to Miami so they headed south. Now, Novak continues to train, working with Cathy Accurso, of In Balance Physical Therapy, who helps train runners. “Robert is humble, kind and an all-around great guy. I also believe he is a promising Olympian,” she says.
As for Novak, he’s now the father of an 11-month baby boy and he works full time, but he is still training, his eye on Brazil—and beyond. “When I look back at high school and I see the joy that running brought me, I don’t see it as work,” says Novak, adding, “My love of running, and of racing, is something I want to experience for the rest of my life.”
by Charlotte Libov