EUGENE, Ore. -- When the Olympic track and field trials returned four years ago to the home of Prefontaine, Bowerman, impossibly pointy evergreens and the ubiquitous swoosh after a 36-year absence, it was an 11-day celebration of a sport that is loved in many more places than it is given credit for, but none more than here. Yet few who were in attendance would argue that the emotions of those Trials peaked in the dusk of a Monday night with the running of the men's 800 meters.
On that night, muscular Idaho transplant Nick Symmonds plowed out of a tactical box on the last turn and sprinted home to the first of what would become five consecutive national titles and his first Olympic berth. Along the rail, Symmonds' training partner, Christian Smith, dove past a tied-up Khadevis Robinson, for third place and a spot on the team.
But it was the tall (6-foot-5) kid in the middle of track who imbued the moment with its most poignant meaning for many in the stands. Andrew Wheating, then 20 and having just finished his sophomore year at Oregon, was wearing Prefontaine's yellow (or a Day-Glo version of Prefontaine's yellow) and he sprinted home to second place and went to Beijing. The grandstand wobbled that night, as three runners from somewhere else who embraced Oregon as home all made the Olympic team.
They ran another trials 800 on Monday night at Hayward Field. And it was a hell of race. This time, Symmonds dominated and, behind him, Robinson collected the Olympic spot that eluded him four years earlier, while Duane Solomon (who was also in the '08 final) not only finished third, but achieved the Olympic 'A' standard in the same race, which is serious running. It wasn't quite the same as four years earlier, because you can't go home again in life or sports. But it was good stuff.
On Tuesday afternoon, the day after this year's race, Andrew Wheating (his friends call him Andy, and probably other things, too) sat outside a Eugene lunch spot and scarfed down a sandwich after a late-morning swim. Hayward Field was two blocks away, quiet during the trials' two-day break. Wheating is 24 now, done with college running and two years a professional. A week ago, before the trials came back, he watched the video of that 800 race from four years ago.
"I don't like watching myself race,'' says Wheating. "What's done is done. You can't do that race again, unless you go back in time or something. You can't do it again. But I sat back and watched that 800. Oh, man. It sparked a bunch of goose bumps. I think my eyes were watering a little bit....''
(OK. Pause here on that note for an important irony alert. Anyone who has kept track of Wheating for the last couple years knows that Wheating and housemate/training partner/Northern New England native Russell Brown have a blog that lampoons many societal conventions, including the plight of the struggling or emotionally distraught athlete. Coming back to that letter. For now, let's assume that Wheating, however goofy on video, would be probably be moved by watching what was --unquestionably the biggest moment of his athlete career. "Still is,'' he says.)
So sitting at this iron lunch table in the Oregon overcast, Wheating puts a value on that video. "Ii was good for me to see,'' he said. "Seeing that I can perform. And seeing that the trials were coming and they're going to be real.''
Wheating did not run in the 800 meters on Monday night. He watched the race on television from his house six blocks from Hayward Field. In fact, over the first days of the trials, Wheating says he hasn't once gone to Hayward. "I'm kind of staying away,'' he says. "The whole thing with getting stopped by people who recognize you. Usually I love that kind of stuff, but after I race. And I really don't want to get too caught up in the emotions of the trials until it's time.'' (Almost on cue, 10 minutes later, two young runners stopped and asked Wheating for a photo).
That time will come Thursday afternoon, when Wheating will race in the opening round of the 1,500 meters (there are three rounds in the event: qualifying, semifinal, and then a final on Sunday afternoon, the last event of the meet). It's axiomatic that four years is a long time for an Olympic athlete; you could say it about all of them. Yet the description is particularly fitting for Wheating, who has gone from the naïve joy of 08 to the cold professionalism of '12. (Not that it's changed him. He still seems to be fundamentally the same semi-goofy Vermonter whom I first met for an interview at Autzen Stadium in '08, but the context of that personality is very different).
Wheating didn't advance out of his heat at the Beijing Olympics. He walked through the media zone afterward like a deer in stadium spotlights, which was not entirely surprising. His Pac-10 kick wasn't enough to take down grown men. In 2009, he won the NCAA 800 meters and, in 2010, he won both the 800 and 1,500 and turned professional, signing an endorsement contract with Nike. Before that summer was over he ran 3:30.980 for 1,500 meters; among Americans, only Bernard Lagat, Sydney Maree and Alan Webb have run faster for the distance.
Wheating's story was irresistible. He was discovered in his soccer team's timed mile at a little prep school in New Hampshire and didn't run seriously until he was 17. Hence, he seemed to have limitless upside and media rushed to anoint him 'The Next Great Thing', including me in a fall, 2010 piece in Sports Illustrated. None of this was Wheating's fault, and of course, there would be blowback.
In 2011, Wheating struggled with pain in his left hamstring and never hit top condition. He made Team USA for the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, but only because Lagat declined his 1,500-meter spot -- right on the track at Hayward Field. Wheating was eliminated in the first round in Korea and then stood against a wall with a backpack over his shoulder in the basement of the stadium as former Oregon teammate Matthew Centrowitz did interviews after taking a shocking bronze medal in the worlds 1,500. And snatched 'The Next Great Thing' title right away from Wheating.
"It was very difficult there,'' says Wheating. "We [Wheating and Oregon coach Vin Lanana, who still coaches him] just didn't know what we were dealing with on the hamstring thing. It wasn't really getting better.''
Eventually, Wheating was diagnosed not with a strained hamstring, but with tendonosis in the area that connects the hamstring to the gluteal muscles. Managing the condition is an ongoing circumstance, with endless stretches and movements to encourage blood flow to the hip area. But as Wheating struggled with his performances from the spring of 2011 into the spring of 2012, then came the aforementioned blowback.
The issue of track and field earning power was pushed to public discussion in the Olympic year. World champion 400-meter hurdler Lashinda Demus told a media gathering in Dallas, "We know we're in a dying sport. People are making $15,000 a year and calling themselves a professional athlete. To me that's not a good job.''
In this context, Wheating's name came up often, even if only cryptically. One athlete told me, "It's very hard to get a good shoe contract for more than $25,000, unless you're a superstar or you're a distance runner who went to Oregon, even if you've never won a medal.'' Wheating heard the whispers. "I have heard it, a little bit,'' he said Tuesday in Eugene. "I don't know what to say. It's tough. Being at Oregon, there are track fans here. Even if you're not the best in the U.S.A, you've got followers here, so Nike will say, 'This guy is marketable.' You can have a fan base even if you're not the best in the world.' It is a blessing and a curse. Because you get the hype, but then you have to live up to the hype. Or the hype can bring you down.''
Lanana says, "He didn't create the market for himself. Somebody else does that.''
Then came the videos. As Wheating both rehabbed and trained, he and Brown made a series of videos for their blog, which is subtitled "Just Two Guys Being Weird.'' And they are hilarious. There's an imagining of how Mario and Luigi might prepare on "Race Day'' for a game of Mario Kart. There's a parody of "Cribs'' with decathlete Ashton Eaton (who came to Oregon with Wheating in the fall of 2006) and his fiancée, Brianne Theisen. "Granite counter tops,'' says Eaton, smarmily, as he wanders through a very ordinary house with funky synthesizer music laid over the top of his narration. "Imported from the granite mines of Malaysia.''
And on April 16, there was a video entitled "Catching Up With Andrew Wheating,'' (and subtitled "A Super Serious Interview with Andrew Wheating.'') In the opening frames, Brown asks Wheating if he was able to handle the disappointment of his hamstring injury. "Wellll-l-l-l-l ...'' says Wheating in a high-pitched voice, and then the video cuts to Wheating bawling in the shower.
It's clear that Wheating was mocking the media's habit of turning every injured athlete's story into Brian's Song. And there was a lot of support in the running community. The site FloTrack posted Wheating's and Brown's videos. "We got a lot of feedback saying keep the videos coming,'' says Wheating. "It's great to see you guys are goofballs as well as serious athletes.'' But there was also blowback from this. "Whenever I had a bad performance,'' says Wheating. "People would say, 'Stop spending all your time making videos.'' Wheating shrugs at this one. "You know, in our sport, we have a lot of down time. Russell and I would just go out after practice and do it.''
(There's clearly another value to the videos, at least to the one about coping with injury. Wheating actually was frustrated at not being able to train. But instead of sulking about it, he made a video. "It took some of the pressure off,'' he says. I asked Lanana if the videos were a defense mechanism and he said, "I think to an extent, they were.'' Lanana also said, "The videos are on hold right now.'' Wheating says he has other habits, like turning 22-ounce bottles from Oregon craft brewer Rogue into mugs by scoring the glass right at the base of the longneck. That, and growing vegetables. Honest.)
It is the nature of the modern athlete that his every step (and misstep) and going to be scrutinized online. By taking Nike's money, by making irreverent -- and to repeat, hilarious -- videos, Wheating is inviting criticism that will only be halted (and never entirely) by winning medals and running fast times. Which brings Wheating back to Hayward Field. He says he has had a solid two months of good training, which isn't nearly as much as he'd like, but it might be enough. At his best, Wheating has the perfect tactical 1,500-meter skill set: The ability to run fast and still accelerate in the inevitable finishing sprint.
But in the U.S., the 1,500 has become a deep event, even without Olympians Lagat and Lopez Lomong, who are both running the 5,000 here. There is world medalist Centrowitz (whose training was also slowed by injury), Olympian Leo Manzano, Robby Andrews, David Torrence, Kyle Merber and half a dozen others who could make the team. As Alan Webb said after being eliminated from the 5,000 Monday night, "These guys are the real deal. You break four minutes, nobody even knows about it anymore. That was always a thing to do. Now it's whatever, get in line.''
Wheating says, "It's true. Three fifty-five is like the new sub-four.''
Wheating is young enough to peak at the next Olympics, although that his absolutely not the plan. He struggled to a 16th-place finish in the mile at the June 2 Prefontaine Classic, but eight days later achieved the Olympic 'A' standard with a 3:35.89 in the 1,500 at Vancouver, B.C. (roughly equivalent to a 3:53 mile). "I'm fit, I'm healthy,'' he said. "And I can definitely get into the top three spots if I do what I can do.'' Living up to the hype. Going back in time.