In the spring of 2001, 18-year-old Virginia high school senior Alan Webb ran the mile in 3:53.43 at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., obliterating a scholastic record that had been set more than three decades earlier by Jim Ryun. Webb was given a standing ovation at Hayward Field and took a victory lap in the embrace of Moroccan world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj. At that moment Webb also assumed responsibility for guiding the sport's domestic future. It was heady stuff.
By then Webb had already announced that he would attend and run for Michigan, even though the college system, with its demanding three-season structure (cross-country, indoor track, outdoor track) and emphasis on team scoring, has been increasingly criticized as an ineffective way to produce world champions and Olympic medalists. (Neither Maurice Greene nor Marion Jones, the U.S.'s top track stars, ran regularly in college.) Other nations tend to nurture their runners more carefully through more focused developmental programs.
The issue surfaced as soon as Webb broke Ryun's record. As Webb lay stretching on the Hayward training track after the Prefontaine mile, U.S. Olympic sprinter Jon Drummond walked past. "There's Alan Webb, the savior of track and field," Drummond said to an acquaintance. "Too bad the college system will eat him up and spit him out."
In a way it already has: Last week Webb announced that he was leaving Michigan and would reunite with his high school coach, Scott Raczko, to run as a professional (while taking classes at George Mason University). Webb had what most freshmen would consider an outstanding season, winning the Big Ten cross-country and 1,500-meter titles, but he finished 11th in the NCAA cross-country meet, fourth in the NCAA 1,500 and missed the entire winter with an Achilles tendon injury. He did not approach his times from high school. "I wasn't happy with my performance," he says. "I think to be the best at something, you have to do extraordinary things. Obviously, this is kind of extraordinary, but the truth is, I considered doing it last year."
College track fans needn't despair, though—this is hardly the start of an exodus. Webb is the rare teen runner for whom college is not the only option. His agent, former world-class miler Ray Flynn, will likely be able to capitalize on the lingering buzz from Webb's remarkable high school career to negotiate endorsement contracts. "Whether the college system is right for other people, I don't know," says Webb. "I just need to go forward and push myself to get better."