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He ran not for crypto-religious reasons, but to win races, to cover ground fast.
—JOHN L. PARKER JR., Once a Runner
Most gifted young runners are not just participants in their sport; they are fully absorbed in its culture. They begin running early and soon learn the obsessively numerical language of the game—splits, miles per week, national rankings—and they become connected across time zones in an Internet-based community. They are passionate about racing against the clock, but not always about racing against other runners.
Then there is Andrew Wheating. He didn't run a track race until the winter of his senior year at a tiny prep school in New Hampshire, 4½ years ago. When other runners would gasp, "Oh, my god, sixty-two!" for a lap run in one minute and two seconds, Wheating would ask, "Sixty-two what? Sixty-two runners in the race?" When he arrived at Oregon as an under-the-radar recruit in 2006, he had never heard of Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj, the greatest miler in history.
"I remember him asking me, after he had decided to go to Oregon, what the world record was for the mile," says former Stanford runner Russell Brown, who knew Wheating from growing up in New Hampshire. "He knew nothing about the sport."
Wheating did know one thing. "Put him in a race, regardless of what race," says Oregon coach Vin Lananna, "he runs to win."
It's working. In the summer of 2008, at age 20, Wheating made the U.S. Olympic team in the 800 meters, and before exhausting his college eligibility in June he won five NCAA titles, including an electrifying 800-1,500 double this year in front of an Oregon home crowd at Hayward Field in Eugene. He turned pro in July, and ran four stellar races in Europe, most notably a 3:30.90 for the 1,500 meters in Monaco on July 22, the sixth-fastest time in history by a U.S. runner.
Wheating's résumé, physique and skill set—he is 6'6" and seems to run effortlessly—have made him the latest Great American Hope in the mile and the 1,500. With the Worlds looming in 2011 and the Olympics in 2012, expectations for Wheating are only rising. "He's a freak of nature, the guy is ridiculous," says Johnny Gray, the U.S. record holder in the 800 (1:42.60), who's now an assistant coach at UCLA. "He's capable of challenging my American record in the 800, but in the 1,500, my goodness, he can break the world record [El Guerrouj's 3:26.00, in 1998] and win medals."
It's the medals that motivate Wheating. His breakthrough 1,500 in Monaco was good for just fourth-place (behind two Kenyans and a Moroccan). "For a second, in the last 100, I was thinking, All right, I'm gonna have a fast time," says Wheating, "but the mind-set always has to be, Catch those guys. The minute you forget you're competing, you lose the race. Fourth place isn't on any medal stand."
Wheating is sitting in the den of his family's home off a hard-packed dirt road outside Norwich, Vt. Straight from Vermonter central casting, he is barefoot and wearing sweatpants and a tie-dyed T-shirt from Ben & Jerry's. Wheating only recently made his first visit to the ice-cream company's headquarters, an hour away in Waterbury, and at the end of the tour he asked, "What does it take to get a flavor named after you?"