He was kidding. Sort of. Wheating's rookie summer as a professional did not intimidate him. "After those races, I feel like I can race with those guys," he says. "I feel like I can beat them." That would include even 21-year-old David Rudisha of Kenya, who last month set a world record of 1:41.01 in the 800. "I watched his record race, and they just let him go," says Wheating. "I just want to get on his shoulder and see how long I can go."
Brave talk for a guy who six years ago was getting ready for his junior season of soccer at Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H. When he ran the conditioning mile in five minutes flat, his coach suggested that he try cross-country. Wheating won two New England small-division prep school cross-country titles. After the second, Dave Faucher, a KUA administrator, called his friend Jeff Johnson, a former Stanford runner, charter Nike employee and a part-time coach who lived nearby in New Hampshire.
"The Faucher phone call," says Wheating. "Without that call, none of this happens. It's cheesy, but you could call it destiny."
There is talent in Wheating's DNA. His father, Justin, born in South Africa and raised in England, was an accomplished field hockey player. As a kid Andrew was in perpetual motion. "Wave a red flag in front of him and watch him go," says his mother, Betsy. Two weeks ago in Vermont he could be found tossing a ball and racing the family's border collie around the house, just to win. Yet his demeanor is decidedly chill. "He's just Andy," says longtime friend John Wallis. "He's goofy. He's the same guy who would sit in the back of the room in junior high looking up dirty words in the dictionary."
In January 2006, after the phone call from Faucher, Johnson met with Wheating. A few days later he took Wheating to the Dartmouth Field House and told him to run six 400-meter intervals in 67 seconds each, which he did easily. Johnson called Lananna at Oregon. "Jeff doesn't blow smoke," says Lananna, who began recruiting Wheating. As a senior, Wheating, running independently—Kimball Union has no track team—ran 3:54 for 1,500 meters, roughly the equivalent of a 4:11 mile.
His progress since has been dramatic. Wheating "has an enormous upside in terms of aerobic capacity," says Lananna, who will continue to coach him as a pro for both the 800 and the 1,500. "If I were coaching against Andrew, it would be tough to formulate a strategy. You can't outkick him, but you can't outrun him, either."
Wheating's style is to wait and kick, but he has demonstrated solid racing instincts and the rare ability to kick off a fast pace, which is vital to succeeding in the 1,500 at the international championship level. "You have to be able to react quickly and change gears," says Steve Holman, a 1992 Olympian, 3:50 miler and member of the USA Track and Field board of directors. "It takes a lot of confidence and toughness." The 800, meanwhile, is essentially a sustained sprint.
Wheating will be scrutinized by the track-nut underground and ordained by the mainstream as 2012 nears. "My Facebook friend requests have gone way up," he says. "Hey, I'm not leading the charge here. There are a bunch of good Americans. I'd like to help make running cool. When I started, people were like, Dude, running is not cool."
Wheating walks outside in the midday sunshine, his border collie shuffling along behind. A Nerf ball sits on the lawn. You just know that in five minutes there's going to be a tired dog lying in the grass and a world-class runner in possession of another win.
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