Elite prep runner Lukas Verzbicas has choice: track or triathlon
Lukas Verzbicas has potential to make Olympics in track or the triathlon
Verzbicas loves both sports, but has better chance of medaling in triathlon
But he loves track and will attend Oregon next fall on track scholarship
Lukas Verzbicas is grimacing. The Illinois high school track star is sprinting around the final lap of the mile run at the New Balance Indoor Nationals in New York City in March, and the only sign that he's hurting as he races away from the field is the brief flash of pain.
As he rounds the final turn, Verzbicas increases his pace but his form still looks effortless. In the background, arms flail, shoulders bump and feet strike erratically, but out front Verzbicas moves with precision, everything but his shaggy hair in its proper place. He smiles and throws his arms up as he hits the tape. He half-walks, half-jogs a few steps and throws his arms in the air again, this time to thank the crowd for its support.
The smile stays on his face as he takes a victory lap around the track, and his excitement is understandable. Although he's run faster than his 4:10.67 mile time, it didn't come 70 minutes after finishing seven-tenths of a second off the national high school indoor two-mile record. Or complete an unprecedented triple that started two days earlier when Verzbicas broke his own national record in the 5,000 meters. The mile win gives him five national running championships in just more than three months. Actually, six, if you consider that, thanks partly to the quirky setup of high school national meets, Verzbicas' triple meant that Verzbicas won the team title ... by himself.
Maybe it makes sense that Verzbicas blurred the line between individual and team. He's never followed the normal script. The 18-year-old, who emigrated from Lithuania when he was 8, recently graduated from Carl Sandburg High in Orland Park, Ill., in three years. "An athlete's life is not forever, so you have to make the most of it," he says. "I have to race against athletes who are at my level or better than me."
He's certainly capable of making the jump to the college level, which he'll do by running cross country and track at the University of Oregon next fall. With his dominance at the national level, Verzbicas is in the discussion as the best prep distance runner ever. The most tantalizing aspect of his success might be that he has never fully devoted himself to the sport. He raced cross country part-time for his high school in the fall, but only after finishing his triathlon season, and he never ran for his school in track, competing unattached at national meets while training for triathlons.
This spring, for the first time, Verzbicas concentrated on running, racing mostly against professionals. Last weekend, he smashed German Fernandez's high school outdoor two-mile record by five seconds when he ran 8:29.46 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. On Saturday, he'll make his bid to break four minutes in the mile at the adidas Jim Ryun High School Dream Mile in New York City. Only four prep runners have ever gone sub-4, the first being the race's namesake in 1964. "It's a barrier, that's for sure," Ryun says. "But it's also attainable."
Verzbicas doesn't hide his aspirations to break four. After he won last year's Dream Mile in 4:04.38, he said he planned to do it this year. "I'm a year older, more mature and more experienced," he says now. "I'm a lot closer even than I was last year. If everything goes well, why shouldn't it be possible?" He speaks openly of his Olympic dreams, too. As the inconsistent performances by former high school phenoms show, prep achievement by no means guarantees future success. But "he's got everything going for him," says former Olympian Marty Liquori.
Verzbicas also has a trump card. He's not just a runner. He finished fourth at the International Triathlon Union Junior World Championship last September in a race he may have won if not for his inexperience. Until recently, he was expected to pursue his Olympic ambitions in the triathlon. But then he made a decision to focus exclusively on running in college. Or maybe he simply delayed a decision on his future. It's possible that the latest in the long line of "next great American distance runners" will exit the sport for something unrelated to injuries, burnout or failure. He may choose a different sport.
Rasa Bertule is exaggerating when she says her son "grew up on the track," but it was a constant in the journey that took the distance prodigy from Kaunas, Lithuania to the Chicago suburbs. By the time Verzbicas was 15 months old, he joined his mom at the track. He played as Bertule, a former Lithuanian national record holder in the 3,000, coached. His stepfather, Romas Bertulis, is also a longtime track coach. "He grew up with elite athletes," Bertule says. "He doesn't know another life."
The desire to come to America was born from Bertule's experiences as an international competitor. Through those years racing around the world, she came to believe the United States was the "best place to be the best, the land of dreams." The journey was challenging, but the family made it smoother through their preparation. Verzbicas took English classes for two years before the move to America.