Just the Beginning
Former high school phenom Alan Webb could cap his best year yet with a gold medal in the 1,500 at the worlds. But the longer road leads to Beijing -- and beyond
Posted: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:47PM; Updated: Tuesday August 21, 2007 12:47PM
On a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 2001, Alan Webb ran a mile faster than any other U.S. high school runner in history. More than 11,000 spectators rose in a frenzy to cheer the epic performance at Oregon's Hayward Field, and many more embraced it from afar. Webb clocked 3:53.43 that day, nearly two seconds faster than Jim Ryun had run 36 years earlier. World-record holder and race winner Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco invited Webb to share his victory lap. David Letterman invited him to share his stage.
An impatient U.S. track community beseeched Webb to put the sport on his 18-year-old back.
"When you run 3:53 and convincingly break a record that was held by an icon like Jim Ryun," says Bob Kennedy, a two-time Olympian and the U.S.-record holder in the 5,000 meters, "people, especially outside the sport, are going to expect nothing less than an Olympic gold medal. That's America."
Or, as Webb's father, Steve, an economist for the World Bank, puts it in the language of his profession, "Many people became distracted by linear extrapolations, based on that race."
Six years have passed. Webb has spent much of that time in a maelstrom of rushed expectation and blind criticism, fueled by the explosion of Internet message boards and the country's fascination with precocity. No other distance runner has been more scrutinized. Predictably, Webb has emerged wiser and tougher -- and also, at 24, as one of the best middle-distance runners in the world.
At the world track and field championships, which begin Saturday in Osaka, Japan, Webb is among the favorites in the 1,500 meters. "Alan has had a lot of pressure on him, but he has incredible talent," says Bernard Lagat, the Kenyan-born 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the 1,500 meters, who is now a U.S. citizen. "He has put things together at the right time."
Webb has already had a summer for the ages. He won his third U.S. 1,500-meter title on June 24 in Indianapolis. Twelve days later, at a race in Paris, he ran a personal best of 3:30.54 in the 1,500 (the world's fastest time this year) for his first-ever Golden League victory. Two weeks after that, on a quiet, tree-shrouded track in Belgium, Webb ran a 3:46.91 mile, shattering Steve Scott's quarter-century-old U.S. record of 3:47.69. And on July 28 Webb ripped off a personal best of 1:43.84 in the 800 meters, the second-fastest time in the world this year, to win another race in Belgium.