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Wheating has shot at Olympic glory


In this week's edition of Sports Illustrated you'll find a story I wrote on budding U.S. middle-distance talent Andrew Wheating. To read the story, I recommend you buy the magazine (although I hear there are other ways to find SI articles). Here's a summary:

Wheating, 22, switched from soccer to cross country as a junior at Kimball Union Academy, a small prep school near his home in Norwich, Vermont. He didn't run a track race until the spring of 2006 and scarcely two years later made the U.S. Olympic team in the 800 meters. He had just finished his sophomore year at Oregon.

This past spring, Wheating was the NCAA champion in both the 800 and 1,500 meters and then began his professional career with a truncated four-race Euro-tour, the most impressive of which was 3:30.90 for the 1,500 meters at a race on July 22 in Monaco. It made Wheating the fourth-fastest U.S. 1,500-meter runner in history and now, going forward, Wheating has the confidence that he can run with -- and beat -- anybody, including the remarkable David Rudisha.

Here are some things that couldn't make it into SI, because, well, there are space limitations in a magazine:

• Stories come together in strange ways. I first met Wheating in Eugene a few days after he made the Olympic team in the 800 meters. I wrote about that race for in the context of track history in Eugene, and also a little about Wheating's unusual background and meteoric rise. Since I was in town with a couple of dark days in the competition, I asked Oregon track SID Greg Walker if I could talk to Wheating. Walker set it up and we talked for 45 minutes in a conference room at Oregon's lavish athletic complex near Autzen Stadium. Sometimes it's tricky getting Olympic sports stories into SI; this one took two years, but Wheating is still only 22, so it's all good.

• It was Wheating's prep school soccer coach, Scrib Fauver, who first encouraged Wheating to give cross country a try after he ran a conditioning mile in around five minutes before his junior season. Wheating still resisted. "People were coming up to me in the hallway at school and saying, 'Dude, you're doing running? Running is not cool.' It took him several days to make the switch, and then he never lost a high school cross country race.

• After he made the switch to running, and after he was "discovered" by Jeff Johnson, a former Stanford runner well-known in the running community as one of the founding employees at Nike (Johnson lives near Norwich in Lebanon, N.H.) and a respected coach who recommended Wheating to Oregon coach Vin Lananna, Wheating's friends still had doubts.

Russell Brown, who is two years older than Wheating and ran at Hanover (N.H.) High School, went on a run with Wheating in the summer of 2006, before Wheating went to Oregon. "I remember that summer, I came home and there were always a few guys around to run with," says Brown. "Everybody had heard about what Andy was doing, so I called him and said, 'Do you want to go for a run with us?' He said sure. So we did this run that's basically 30 minutes uphill and then 30 minutes downhill. And you could see: This guy is good. But it wasn't easy for him to keep up. And I was thinking at the time, I just don't know if this guy can get in the kind of shape you need to get in."

Eighteen months later, Brown did another workout with Wheating at home. It was in the winter of 2007-'08 and they met up at the Dartmouth Field House. "We were running some 200s," says Brown. "We were going along in 26 seconds and I was running behind him and he just looked relaxed and easy. He looked the same doing 26-second 200s as he did on 75-second 400s. Not many people can say that. At that point, it was pretty obvious that he was very good."

• Wheating got knocked out of the Olympic Games' 800 meters in the first round. "Total lack of experience," says Wheating. "I was intimidated right from the start. Then the first lap goes in, like 54 seconds, which is really slow, and I'm thinking, OK, this is how they do it up here. I can do this. Then it goes right down to 50 pace, immediately, and I could never make up the ground I gave up."

• There was a lot of buzz in 2008 that Wheating should turn professional and give up his last two years of college eligibility. Lananna was -- and remains -- Wheating's coach and advisor. "We had a very brief conversation," says Lananna. "I told Andrew, 'This is the silliest thing I've ever heard.' He was a 1:45 and change half-miler at that point. He wasn't going to get millions and millions of dollars at that point, to leave college. You knew, with experience, he was going to get better and better. And he was a kid who enjoyed running college."

• Wheating's stage name, going forward, is "Andrew," but all his friends know him as `"Andy." Wheating's father, Justin, and his agent, the respected Mark Wetmore, thought that "Andrew" sounds more professional. His friends think it's hilarious. In 2008, when Wheating was becoming a track celebrity, long-time friend John Wallis texted him. The text said, "Who is this guy ANDREW Wheating? He's apparently a good runner."

• Workouts: Lannana said that when Wheating was a sophomore at Oregon, he was doing 6X800 at 2:14 with two minutes' static recovery. By his senior year, the average was down to 2:08, with the last one in 1:58. That was a strength workout.

For speed, shortly after the Prefontaine Classic this year, and before embarking on his summer tour, Wheating ran 400-400-300 in 50-flat, 50.2 and 36 flat with five minutes' jogging rest between each. "At that point," says Lannana, "I knew he was going to run fast in Europe." (Wheating recalled that workout: "The closest I've ever come to puking.")

During the European tour, Wheating did more fast work, including one session comprised of 500 meters in 1:04-point, 300 meters in 36-point and a closing 200 in 23-flat.

• One of the people I talked to for the story, whose quotes didn't make the cut, was Jim Spivey, the last U.S. runner to win a championship medal in the 1,500 meters (a bronze at the Rome Worlds in 1987). Spivey's biggest point was this: "Your first summer out of college, you're in great shape coming off the college season, and suddenly they're paying you money to run and you feel like you've got prove you're worth it, so you run out of your mind. You're too stupid to know any better.

"But then by the second summer, you realize that whether you finish fourth or ninth at Zurich," says Spivey, "you're still going to get paid."

One of Wheating's strengths is that he runs races to win, rather than for time. "He may say time doesn't matter to him," says Spivey, "but time will make him money in the future."

Then again, medals will make Wheating money, too. And his ability to run fast and also kick matches the style that makes African runners so tough to beat. (As in: Anybody can kick off a slow pace, but that's rapidly becoming a useless skill).

• Another source in the piece was Steve Holman, a member of USATF Board of Directors. (I talked to him before Doug Logan was ousted). Holman ran 3:50 and was saddled with the "Next Great Miler" title for several years. To his thinking, Wheating will be benefit if Alan Webb returns to top form in the next two years. "They could feed off each other," says Holman. "It will be potentially intriguing to see if both of them could develop together." And of course, share the burden of expectation. (Leo Manzano isn't going anywhere, either).

• Wheating is instinctive in many ways, but he and Lannana have had goals for the last four years. "First year at Oregon, just try to make the team," says Wheating. "Second year, maybe score some points [he made the Olympic team]. Third year, win some races. Senior year, win the 800 and 1,500." Now the goals become broader. "I want to get to the Worlds and the Olympics and win," says Wheating. "But first I have to make the team. Then I have to make the final. You have to be careful about setting the bar too high, because then it hurts when you fall short."

• Which event, 800 or 1,500? That's to be determined. Wheating will continue to train for both.