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On July 9 in Sacramento, Ritzenhein ran the 10,000 at the Olympic trials. Having done nothing for three weeks but extreme cross-training (swimming laps while holding his breath, sprinting madly on an elliptical trainer), Ritzenhein hung with the pack for a few laps, then quickly lost ground. Because he was one of the few runners in the U.S. who had achieved the Olympic "A" qualifying time, there was a chance he could be named to the Olympic team regardless of his finish at the trials--as long as he finished the race. So he kept running, his stride gradually turning to a labored limp as racer after racer lapped him. "Heartbreaking to watch," says Torres.
By Ritzenhein's guess, the bone finally snapped with a couple of miles to go. (X-rays taken after the race showed a complete break.) Ritzenhein finished in 31:13.91, more than three minutes behind winner Meb Keflezighi and four seconds slower than women's winner Deena Kastor would run seven nights later. "It was humiliating, getting the pity clap from the crowd at the finish," says Ritzenhein.
He had broken the foot so badly that even in a plastic boot, he was limping for two weeks. But in a sense the gamble had paid off. He was named to the Olympic team, went to Athens, and though he was far too unfit to be competitive (he dropped out of the final with four laps left), he experienced the Games from a competitor's perspective. Upon his return to Boulder, he had the Olympic rings inked onto his right calf. The yellow ring blends with his skin and is barely visible. "I'm going to get the yellow one outlined in black when I accomplish something more in the Olympics," he says.
Between Sacramento and Athens, Ritzenhein turned pro, hiring agent Peter Stubbs and signing a five-year contract with Nike worth more than $200,000 a year. Ritzenhein had two full years of eligibility remaining. "I needed a new approach to training," he says. "I was always rushing back from injuries for the next NCAA season. I'm sure it's the right decision for me."
Ritzenhein continues to live in Boulder with his fianc�e, Kalin Toedebusch, a teammate in high school. His new coach is former marathoner Brad Hudson, who has gradually introduced strength-building short hill sprints and long intervals (one session: 3,000 meters at a 68-second 400-meter pace, 2,000 meters at a 66-second pace, 1,000 meters at a 64-second pace, twice). Their long-term plan is obvious: to move Ritzenhein up to the marathon, possibly as soon as autumn 2006.
Ritzenhein has serious goals: break the American records for 10,000 meters and the marathon. "I see him running sub-13 for the 5,000 [ Kennedy is the only American to have done this], sub-27 for the 10,000 [the U.S. record is 27:13.98], and then the marathon will be his best event," says Salazar.
Keflezighi is a naturalized American citizen who won a silver medal in the marathon in Athens, but he was born in Eritrea, bordered by Ethiopia, and came to the U.S. at age 11; American marathon record holder Khalid Khannoucchi was born in Morocco and arrived in the U.S. at age 21. "Dathan is the great American boy," says Torres. "He comes from a little hick town in the Midwest, and he can deliver the performances, too. He can be our Lance Armstrong."
Ritzenhein's quest moves to a larger stage this weekend when he attempts to begin elevating his sport and his profile in one afternoon, far from home. The challenge is inescapable and drives him every day. "I don't want to be remembered as the greatest American distance runner," says Ritzenhein. "Because it's just not good enough to be a good American runner."