Bernie Prabucki started running in grammar school — not from competitors, but from authority.
In this case, authority came in the form of the nuns who were teachers at the Queen of the Most Holy Rosary on Sobieski Street in Buffalo.
“The teachers were all nuns, kindergarten through eighth grade,” he said. “They handed out discipline without thinking about who was guilty or innocent. If they thought you did it, they had those 3-foot pointers so they could hit three kids at one time.
“When I was younger, I earned a reputation for being in the middle of trouble. In their eyes, you either did it, started it, or knew who did it. But I was always innocent of course.”
Prabucki used those unique training methods to become one of the top runners in Western New York history. He was one of five people inducted into the Western New York Running Hall of Fame on Friday night, as he made the trip up from North Carolina for the ceremony.
The other inductees were John Chew, Charlie Kern, Vicki Mitchell and Carl Roesch.
Prabucki’s running took a more structured turn when he arrived at Seneca Vocational High School. There he was guided by coach Joe Gnozzo.
“Joe knew just enough about running, and thought it was important not to do too much with his kids. He always undertrained,” Prabucki remembered. “That’s good at a young age. … In those days, you had to be 14 years old to compete, and I didn’t turn 14 until I was at the end of my first semester in school. Near the end of my freshman year in cross-country, I ran my first event. I placed, and the coach said, ‘Holy crap!’ ”
Prabucki didn’t stop earning medals throughout his time at Seneca. He was a five-time All-High winner in cross country and track, and held school records at several events.
After high school, Prabucki headed to Fredonia, where he worked with someone who coached the same way as Gnozzo did.
“Everett Phillips was my college coach — fantastic coach. He was a grad assistant under Bill Bowerman at Oregon,” Prabucki said. “He came back to Fredonia and coached the distance runners. He had the same philosophy — the hard/easy program. One day, we’d have a long run, the next day we’d have a short one. We never ran high mileage, just enough to get you to run better and better.”
Prabucki won nine SUNYAC championships. He was a four-time NCAA All-American in cross-country and track, and he won the 1982 NCAA national championship at 5,000 meters. Prabucki said he kicked with 300 meters to go and pulled the race out.
After graduating in 1983, Prabucki tried his hand at the marathon by entering the 1983 Skylon event here. Much to his surprise, he won.
“The distance was foreign to me,” he said. “I sat back and sat back. I was way behind at one point, but the guy who was leading at 21 miles bonked. I took the lead. At 22 or 23 miles, I was already in a state of delirium. A guy looked at me and said, ‘You are doing great!’ I said, ‘I’m quitting.’ And he replied, ‘You can’t quit!’ I finished and won it.”
Prabucki just missed qualifying for the Olympic trials in the marathon for 1984, which were held in Buffalo. He decided to concentrate on shorter distances from there. One of his best races when he finished second in Rochester’s Lilac 10K race in 28 minutes and 47 seconds in a field filled with Olympians.
Prabucki qualified at 5,000 meters for the 1988 Olympic trials in Indianapolis. He looked around and realized that he was sharing a track with such icons as Carl Lewis, Mary Decker and Steve Scott.
“One time I was getting ready to start a heat, and I realized I was standing next to Flo-Jo,” also known as Florence Griffith-Joyner, Prabucki said.
The Buffalo native didn’t qualify for Seoul, and decided to get on with life by entering graduate school at the University of North Carolina. That forced him to become more of a recreational runner. Prabucki also has been coaching Special Olympians for the past 20 years, which has been very rewarding for him.
“All the individual accomplishments I’ve had, they pale in comparison to the coaching experience I’ve had with these athletes. It’s been the greatest story, and the most rewarding. I should pay them to coach,” he said.
Prabucki has found a home in North Carolina, but he hasn’t lost his connection to Buffalo. He still follows the Bills and Sabres, driving to games when those teams visit North Carolina. That made the honor of going into the Western New York Running Hall of Fame particularly meaningful.
“The one thing about Buffalo, and I’ve traveled all over and live in North Carolina, is that nothing compares to Buffalo for the closeness of the community of runners,” Prabucki said. “That’s the one thing I miss most about not being there, that sense of friendship.”
Race calendar on B11