GORHAM – Bruce Bickford probably echoes the sentiments of many former Olympians when he’s asked about how he feels every fourth summer.

“It’s a very special time of year every four years,” he said. “It brings back a lot of memories.”

But some of the memories it brings back are bittersweet for Bickford.

The Benton native was near his peak as a runner heading to the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where he would be the only American competing in the 10,000 meters. He had just come off a victory in the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, and his training in the weeks leading to Seoul had gone well.

But that changed on the first leg of his trip to South Korea for the Olympics. Stopping in Los Angeles about a month before the Games to take care of some red tape with the U.S. Olympic Committee, Bickford started feeling discomfort in his right Achilles tendon.

“For some reason, it started to bother me when I got off the plane in L.A.,” said Bickford. “I went out and did a run and my Achilles started to bother me, and it got worse every time I ran.”

Other than the normal problems that runners experience with their legs and feet, Bickford hadn’t had any injury issues with his Achilles before, so he wasn’t that concerned.

He went to Japan to work out before the Olympics, and while the Achilles continued to bother him, it didn’t seem to affect his running.

He had good workouts in Japan, running the mile in around 4:07. He ran the best time in the 3,000 there and beat all of America’s 5K runners. He knew he was ready.

Three years earlier, Bickford was ranked first in the world at 10,000 meters by the Track and Field News. Having competed extensively in Europe, he knew what to expect from the international field.

“I knew I could race with those guys,” he said. “The one thing I had learned very well was how to race. I went to Europe for three or four summers in a row just for that specific reason.”

He remained confident during qualifying in Seoul and was one of 24 to reach the finals. He had no reason to believe the Achilles would hinder him for the biggest race of his life, and everything seemed fine until about 1/3 of the way through.

“The first two miles, I felt pretty good,” he said. “I was right with the leaders. But after that, I just couldn’t push off.”

Bickford finished the race 17th. Afterward, he discovered his Achilles had swollen to the size of his wrist.

“I didn’t handle it very well,” he said. “I wasn’t a very pleasant person to be around the next year or so.”

Bickford rehabbed the Achilles and even tried laser surgery in Italy to fix the problem, but those didn’t work. He had two more conventional procedures done on it. The second one worked, but then some scar tissue in his left Achilles, the result of having strained the tendon once, began to flare up.

For all intents and purposes, Bickford’s racing career was over. The Lawrence High School star, the four-time Division I All-American at Northeastern, the man who had won five IC4A championships there, competed only once after the Olympics

“(Getting hurt in the Olympics) was tough to take, but I think the toughest thing was never coming back from it,” he said. “I kept rehabbing and rehabbing and trying to go and I just couldn’t.”

Though his competitive career ended, Bickford’s involvement with running continued. He coached cross country at Brandeis University before returning to Maine three years ago to coach the University of Southern Maine men’s cross country team. He also coached the U.S. team to a fourth place finish in the world junior cross country in 2001.

Yet Bickford, now 47, resumed running only recently.

“I really haven’t felt like training again,” he said. “I had been competing so long, I just lost interest.”

Bickford hasn’t lost interest in the Olympics, though.

He recalls the tight security around Seoul in 88 and wonders what athletes will face in Athens.

“Can you imagine what it’s going to be like now?,” he asked. “They’re going to have to be very patient.”

The use of illegal performance enhancers by track athletes tested Bickford’s patience when he competed, so he’s not surprised that several top track athletes have already been suspended for the Athens Games. He hopes Olympic officials continue to crack down on athletes caught doping.

“I think it’s about time they started suspending them,” said Bickford, who with his wife, former USM field hockey and softball star Meredith (Bradley) Bickford, has an eight-month-old son, Landon. “I can remember the year after the 88 trials, 18 athletes tested positive. To me, there’s no place for it. To all of us that were clean, it’s just not fair. The people that test positive, get them out of there. Just kick them out.”

Despite the personal disappointment, Bickford has many great memories of his time in Seoul. At the top, he said, was putting on the U.S.A. blazer and walking into the Olympic stadium with 700 of his American teammates for the opening ceremonies.

“That, to me, was the Olympics. It’s just a feeling so few people get,” he said. “It was an unbelievable experience.”

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