Mark Conover overcame separate surgeries to each of his Achilles’ tendons, and both times became one of the best men’s marathoners in the United States.
Then came cancer.
Hodgkins lymphoma and six months of chemotherapy could not keep him from running around the block, let alone making a fourth straight U.S. Olympic Trials appearance in 1996.
After that, he hung up his professional running shoes to concentrate on coaching at Cal Poly, where Wednesday he was named the director of track and field.
Nearly 14 years after his last Olympic Trials, his athletic triumphs could all seem like the ancient history for the father of 2-year-old triplets, a man perhaps now best known locally for guiding the Cal Poly cross country team to 10 Big West Conference titles and 11 straight appearances in the NCAA Championships, six of those as a team.
But it was a background Mustangs athletic director Alison Cone could not ignore as she sifted through candidates to replace Terry Crawford as the university’s director of track and field.
Talking about what set Conover apart from the 60-plus candidates unearthed in a nationwide search, Cone said, “He has a history of success … When I talk about his success, it’s not only his coaching of the cross country team, but it’s also his personal success being able to overcome adversity and still coming out on top. He’s shown a great ability to do that.”
Conover, an Orinda High graduate and former nine-time All-American at Humboldt State who has now spent half his life training and coaching in San Luis Obispo, emerged from a field of five finalists and replaces Crawford, the nationally renowned coach who resigned from the position in August to take a quality control job with USA Track and Field.
Conover said what helped him overcome cancer was the same thing that drove him to shrug off the foot surgeries to accomplish his goals: The athlete’s competitive attitude and self-confidence.
“When I was told that I had to go through six months of chemotherapy, I had the attitude of ‘bring it on,’ ” Conover said, “and I think a lot of what I learned and took from the process you go through being a track and field and cross country athlete gave me the ace up my sleeve when I went through the battle with Hodgkins disease.”
That realization has helped shape Conover’s coaching philosophy, one based on respecting and paying attention to the steps of becoming a successful athlete rather than being focused on the goals at the horizon.
“I’m a big process guy,” Conover said. “You can set goals, but I think it’s the process along the way that you have to pay attention to. If you do that, then the results will speak for themselves in the end.”
The results have been very positive for Conover, especially since he took over solo cross country coaching duties at Cal Poly in 2003. Prior to that, he and Crawford split the responsibilities.
Conover has led the men’s team to four top-20 finishes nationally. The Mustangs were 10th in 2004, 11th in 2007 and 13th in both 2003 and 2006.
He was the Big West Conference Men’s Coach of the Year eight times and the West Region coach of the year twice.
The women’s cross country team is also peaking. The Mustangs’ third-place conference finish in 2009 was their highest in eight years.
The women have also been recognized as NCAA academic All-Americans and have twice won the Big West team GPA awards under Conover.
The academic recognition isn’t just icing for Conover. It’s another aspect of student athletics he’s planning to stress in his new role as director.
While training for the 1988 Olympic Trials — where he went on to win the men’s marathon, then followed that up with an injury-plagued race in Seoul that he did not finish — Conover was finishing up his master’s thesis in city planning at Cal Poly.
“I’m a big believer in having some kind of balance,” Conover said. “I’ve always felt that you can really balance track and field and cross country with the right type of job or going to school. “I’m in favor of challenging yourself and trying to obtain excellence in all areas of your life, not just athletically but professionally and academically as well.”