Wheating's Olympic berth just the latest chapter of an amazing story
EUGENE, Ore. -- At 25 minutes past eight on a pristine Monday night, Hayward Field shook with emotion. Nick Symmonds, a native of Idaho who moved to Oregon seven years ago and has been embraced as an adopted child, burst to the front of the 800 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and drew clear. Behind him, Andrew Wheating, a 6-foot-5, 20-year-old prodigy wearing the electric yellow singlet of the University of Oregon, sprinted into second. Finally at the wire, Christian Smith, a Kansan also moved among the pines to train in Eugene, dove to the track and took the final Olympic team place.
This took place in twilight on the fourth night of the trials, which now take a two-day break to gather themselves for a final, long weekend. The track and field world celebrated when Eugene was awarded the trials, returning a troubled sport to loving arms. The city has not disappointed, filling Hayward each day and rocking with every event. But Monday night's 800 was in a special category.
"The noise was deafening," said Symmonds, 24. "I thought the [Prefontaine Classic] crowd was loud, but this was twice as loud."
It was noise that sprung from a place deep within the soul of track and field and deeper yet into the hearts of the fans at Hayward Field, who seem to have never forgotten that Steve Prefontaine once circled this same track, pounding out front-running 400s and challenging the best distance runners in the world before dying at the age of 24 in a car accident.
I was a teenaged runner when Prefontaine flourished, five years younger than he, a continent away and yet fully in the thrall of his legend in the days long before the Internet took the mythic glow off everything magical. In 1995, I was in Eugene to cover the Pre Classic and attended a memorial vigil at Hayward Field, holding a small candle in my right hand as the scoreboard clock ticked off a ghostly final lap. It was a chilling moment that measured the depth of the legend.
On Monday afternoon, I detoured en route to Hayward Field to visit the site where Prefontaine died, a small outcropping of stone near the top of Skyline Drive in Eugene, called "Pre's Rock." There are city signs leading visitors to the site, where runners leave singlets, medals, T-shirts and racing flats and faded white paint solemnly announces:
There is no need to belabor Prefontaine's passing. (He was legally intoxicated at the time of his death. Local legend -- and a well-researched section in former Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore's book, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon -- suggests than another car might have run Prefontaine's sports car off the road. It is all part of the mythology). The point is simply to understand that the emotions that accompanied his every race did not die with him. T-shirts bearing his words and his likeness abound
Countless races have been run at Hayward since 1975. The sound behind every one of them owes a tiny debt to Prefontaine. Monday night's 800 was no different. Symmonds, who went to Willamette University in Salem, Ore. and now trains with the Oregon Track Club in Eugene, won by crashing between Jonathan Johnson and Duane Solomon with 150 meters to run -- "That was a little hockey move I picked up in high school," he said after the race -- enabling his telling kick. His time was a world class 1:44.10. Smith just hung on.
But it was Wheating who produced the loudest roar, as he has done throughout the meet. He wore the yellow singlet. He is young and full of potential. Does any of this sound familiar?
Wheating's story stretches credulity. In an age when young athletes are ferreted out and guided in all sports toward some sort of destiny, Wheating came late to his talent and is only now beginning to scratch its surface.
In the fall of 2005, he was a senior at Kimball Union Academy, an expensive private school on the border of central Vermont and New Hampshire, not far from his home in Norwich, Vt. He had been a soccer and basketball player of no special talent. During a soccer conditioning test, he ran under five minutes for a mile. The soccer coach suggested that he might want to try running cross country and he ran well in the fall of that year.
Dave Faucher, the former men's basketball coach at Dartmouth and director of alumni relations at KUA, reached out to an old friend named Jeff Johnson. KUA had no track team, but Faucher wanted Wheating to have some coaching and some direction and Johnson had plenty of connections and background. He had been a runner at Stanford and one of the founding employees at Nike in the 1970s. He knew running. (He also knew Prefontaine). Faucher suggested to Johnson that there was a raw, possibly talented young runner at his school.
Johnson, who is retired and was coaching part-time a local high school agreed to have dinner with Wheating at Molly's Restaurant in Hanover, N.H., in late January of Wheating's senior year. This was just two years ago and Wheating had never run a track race in his life. Johnson brought up Oregon (he was close friends with incoming Oregon coach Vin Lanana, who had previously coached at Dartmouth). He asked if Wheating might be interested in attending college and running for Oregon.
"Sure," said Wheating.
Johnson recalls, "I don't think Andy even knew that Oregon was in North America."
Before selling Wheating further, Johnson needed to see him run. In early February he took him to Dartmouth's indoor track and instructed to run some 67-second 400s. Wheating easily reeled off six of them. It wasn't a killer workout, except that Wheating had been running only 20 miles a week. And it was the way he ran the quarters. "I heard he was a 5,000-meter runner," says Johnson. "But then I saw him rolling through those turns and I thought, I'm looking at a miler here."
In early April, Johnson took Wheating to a college invitational at the University of New Hampshire where he was entered in a junior varsity 1,500. "I told Andy, 'Just hang in the back and then make a move when you're comfortable.' He fell pretty far back early and his mom said to me, 'Aw, he can't keep up.' I said, 'I think he'll be all right.' Then Andy swallowed up the field in about two strides and won in 4:03." (That's equivalent to a 4:20 mile).
A week later Wheating ran a 52.7 400 meters in a public school meet, trouncing a 50-flat quarter-miler in a driving rainstorm with high winds. Before the season was over he would run 3:54 for 1,500 meters and was headed for Oregon.
His progression has been astounding. This year he was second in the NCAA 800 meters before running a personal best of 1:45.03 to finish second behind Symmonds. "He's doing all this on very light training, because Vin is being very careful with him,'' said Johnson. "He's really very undertrained for what he's doing.'' Wheating's style is immensely appealing to fans; he sits off the pace, loping comfortably (and making fast running look very easy) before closing hard in the last 100 meters. Or less.
Meanwhile, Wheating is delightfully oblivious to the enormity of what he has done. It is certainly unlikely that any athlete in modern times has made the U.S. Olympic team while contesting the sport for barely two years. He walked into the medalists' press conference on Monday night and said, "Whoa!" And then, pointing to the winners' dais, "Do I sit up here?"
He was asked about what he has done in just two years and he formulated an awkward apology, as if two years was a long time to reach this level. During their time together in New Hampshire, Johnson had told Wheating about Prefontaine, and like so many young runners, Wheating had loved the story. So it was only appropriate that when Wheating was asked about his past goals, he said, "I was going to be a 5K runner. I was going to be Pre."
So it was fitting that on one night in Eugene, he understood what that must have been like. It's important to say that in some ways, Wheating is not at all like Prefontaine. Pre was from Oregon and led races; Wheating is Vermonter who comes from off the pace. "Pre was very cocky,'' says Johnson. "Andy isn't cocky at all.'' Yet it was fitting that on one night in Eugene, he understood what that must have been like. To be Pre.