By Steve Sears
For Steve Slattery, it was always about the love of running.
“It’s one of those things where I was always a kid who grew up and played a lot of sports and was pretty athletic. So, you need the right combination of being able to run, being a strong miler or two-miler, and be athletic enough to hurdle or be able to jump over the water jump and be a good Steeplechaser. For me, it was something that came pretty naturally, and it was something I gravitated to.”
For the record, Slattery was a national champion in middle school, a four-time All-American during his Mount Olive High School days and was a big part of the University of Colorado winning its first national title in Cross-Country.
It all started in Mount Olive. “Yeah, it was a great place to grow up,” says Slattery. “I was really lucky to grow up in Mount Olive. I grew up in the Flanders part of Mount Olive. We had good schools, there was a lot of stuff to do, and it was a pretty safe and quiet place.”
Slattery, who ran Steeplechase in college, was interested in another type of running in his early days. His love of running was ingrained early in his life. “I ran the mile and Cross-Country and the two-mile in high school. I really got started running in middle school. I was on the middle school cross country team, and I was the national champion for the 3,000 meter and 1,500 meters (which is the mile and two-mile metric measurements). So I was the national champion in 8th grade and I went to Mount Olive High School and I was a state champion in Cross-Country (mile and two mile) and track, and then I went to the University of Colorado, where I was actually still the school record holder in the mile, but then I started getting into the Steeplechase as well. I ran both the mile in Steeplechase and also the two-mile, which were my main events as a professional.”
Slattery’s move up to the high school level was greeted happily by Dave Sulley, who was Slattery’s high school coach. “Steve came into high school with some outstanding accomplishments already at the middle school age group level. He dominated the local league and established many records in Cross- Country and track. He also competed at the regional and national level and won several titles. Recognizing that their son was special, his parents encouraged him at this point to consider developing his talent.”
“I had already known coach Sulley for a long time,” says Slattery. “He was a great coach and having someone like him who had a lot of success at the high school – he eventually retired from Mount Olive and then coached at Delbarton and had a lot of success there — it really helped. A lot of times you need the combination of a talented athlete who is also going to work hard, but you also need the right coaches to guide them, and for me I was just lucky that all of those things came together. Growing up in Mount Olive where we had a very good coach and I had some talent, and I was willing to work hard — all of that came together for me.”
Slattery had success right away. “Steve immediately set his stamp on the high school level his freshman year,” said Sulley, who Slattery says didn’t overwork him but did enough to help the youngster’s progress. “He won the Morris County Cross-Country championships. He went on to win all four years, which no boy has ever done. He went on to win both the county 1600 and 3200 in indoor track four years in a row and the outdoor 3200 four years in a row as well as two 1600 titles. Arguably, he was the greatest male distance runner in Morris county competition.”
What did Slattery have that perhaps other runners didn’t? Sulley elaborates. “Steve was totally dedicated to the sport. He set ambitious goals and followed through on training to achieve them. He never had any serious injury, other than a sprained ankle once, and I attribute that to his paying attention to detail in his training. He worked on the essential aspects of running and was focused on learning how to achieve at the highest level. He spent time learning the sport through reading and research and began to develop a strong sense of direction in doing what would make him succeed.”
Then, there was his competitive nature. “Naturally, he was and has always been extremely competitive. He was gutsy and fearless on the Cross-Country course and track. While he won so often, he took losses with grace and philosophical analysis and immediately looked ahead to how he would do better the next time. He developed many enduring friendships in the sport and was a good sportsman throughout his career. In that sense, he became a great ambassador of the sport. He was willing to help others and had a great sense of humor. He demonstrated leadership in both action and words.”
Sulley and Slattery maintain a special friendship to this day. “It’s my pleasure to say that Steve and I developed a great relationship and it has moved beyond the coach-athlete one to lifelong friendship. I attended meets where he competed beyond high school, including the Olympic Trials. I always look forward to hearing from him and seeing him and knowing his wife Sara and their children. Through Steve’s collegiate and professional career, I was able to get a glimpse into higher levels of the sport as well as meet some of the great elite runners that he and his wife knew at the professional level.”
A top recruit in his class, Slattery received quite a few scholarship offers. He chose the University of Colorado because every year they were one of the top schools in the country, but also because he wanted to run professionally after college, and coaches there had much success in prepping for runners for that. Also, the Buffaloes had never won a national title, but with Slattery now on board, they hoped the plan would reach fruition – and it did. In his junior year, the Buffaloes won their first Cross-Country national championship.
Mark Wetmore, Slattery’s Head Coach at the University of Colorado, was ironically enough a teacher at Mount Olive High School before heading west. He also attended high school in Bernardsville with Sulley. “We are always excited when talented athletes choose us,” he says when asked about Slattery ultimately choosing to be a Colorado Buffalo. Slattery his first semester got acclimated to both collegiate life with his classes, but also to the altitude in the state. His second semester he ran indoor and outdoor track, and Wetmore quickly got him to compete against the best in the country.
And Slattery’s contribution was huge, especially in his junior year in the championship race. “2001 was the first year C.U. won a national title,” says Wetmore. “Steve passed about 20 opponents in the final kilometer. We won by one point I believe.”
“It was really good,” says Slattery, “to be with a great coach and a great program, but also to help the program reach its first national championship and the excitement around that.”
And excitement when he renewed a friendship with someone very special: his future wife, Sara. “We actually met briefly in high school at the high school national championships. I was two years older than her, and at the University of Colorado she ended up coming (there) as well. We knew each other from then, we were friends, started dating right away in college. She’s been probably the biggest influence on my life. She’s just a really talented, hard working person and she’s very dedicated. Having someone in your life who has similar goals and work ethic really helped me.” The couple has been married for 16 years and have two children, a 6-year old son named Steven, and 4-year-old daughter named Cali.
Both Slattery and his wife ran professionally after college, he winning a national title at the USA Outdoor Championships in 2003, and she in 2007 won an international gold medal at the Pan American Games. “We got to compete for our country and travel all over the world. It was a really awesome experience and we’re just really grateful that we got to experience that in our lives. It’s not something a lot of people get to do.”
Sara is now a head coach of the Men’s Cross-Country and Assistant Track and Field coach at Grand Canyon University, and Steve is an area sales manager for Cutera.
Slattery has said many times he “worked hard” with regard to his running career. He was asked to define that. “Many times, when you want to be good at something you need to be dedicated. And for running you have to run a lot, but not just run a lot but run hard. There’s a big difference between running kind of hard and running really hard. You know that if you need to be good you need to run a lot and run hard and push yourself – every day.”
“I was one of those people who was willing to do that.”