For U.S. middle distance phenom Alan Webb, the future seems limitless

Alan Webb after helping his team win the 4x800 relay at the Adidas Outdoor Track Championships  Credit: Grant Halverson/Allsport
RESTON, Va. Alan Webb reached his first finish line faster than expected. Born 4 1/2 weeks premature, each of his legs was as big as his father's thumb.

On May 27, those now-muscular legs propelled the 18-year-old to the fastest mile by a high school runner since Jim Ryun 36 years ago.

Instant celebrity followed. Webb made distance running in the United States exciting again when he ran the mile in 3 minutes, 53.43 seconds at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. Initially running last with a conservative pace, he caught the field and blasted through the final lap to finish fifth. The South Lakes High School senior broke Ryun's record of 3:55.3 by almost two seconds and made the front page of The New York Times.

"If I could do that race again, I'd have a different goal," Webb said. "I'd want to get higher up in that field."

Webb so electrified the crowd that he took a victory lap with the gracious winner, Hicham El Guerrouj. The Moroccan, whose world record is 3:43.13, says that Webb has "the face of a champion."

He also has the instincts of a natural star. As Webb circled the track in celebration, he handed a bouquet of flowers to a little girl in the stands who then held out her arms for a hug and a kiss.

"I said, 'Look at that little bugger, he's working the crowd already,' " said Ron Warhurst, who will coach Webb this fall at the University of Michigan. "He's got the personality to go with the success."

Webb is back in Eugene today as one of the favorites in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. Track and Field Championships, and he said, "I just want to kick butt."

He'll make the U.S. team for the World Championships if he places in the top three and runs the qualifying standard of 3:36.0. En route to his history-making mile, Webb erased Ryun's U.S. high school mark for 1,500 meters by clocking 3:38.26.

Ticket sales for nationals spiked when fans realized that Webb would return to Oregon's Haywood Field. If Webb doesn't make the World Championship team, he'll work in a shoe store this summer. If he does make the team, he'll still work in the shoe store, just as he did last summer. The staff at Footsteps, a Reston store managed by his coach Scott Raczko, helps keep him grounded.

"You'd think he would have a big head, but he's the most down-to-earth famous person I know," said Lia Ames, 16, a high school teammate who also works at the store.

"We don't work on commission here," said 19-year-old Claire Wood, "so it's kind of like, 'Your turn.' "

Webb is making the most of his turn. In a two-week span after the Prefontaine Classic, he:

  • Appeared on every major network morning news show
  • Hobnobbed with President Bush on the White House lawn
  • Went to his prom
  • Attended a black-tie dinner in Washington honoring Muhammad Ali (he still had the tux from the prom)
  • Spoke to elementary school students ("One of the kids asked me what kind of deodorant I was wearing! Speed Stick, of course!")
  • Did interviews with ESPN and newspapers from as far away as England
  • Graduated from high school
  • And, that same day, left for the national scholastic meet in Raleigh, where his 3:59.78 split in the distance medley relay helped South Lakes break the national prep record by four seconds.

    Meeting the demands of fame

    Life in the fast lane agrees with Webb. Ask him a question, and he's off and running. Razcko said that when Webb was summoned to sit next to the president during a T-ball game at the White House, he stayed for 25 to 30 minutes.

    "It looked like Alan was talking to one of his buddies," Raczko said. "Typical Alan, not intimidated at all. Same thing at Pre, he wasn't at all nervous or intimidated by running in that type of field. He just gets pumped up about it."

    The personable teenager takes the demands of fame in stride, as long as it doesn't interfere with training or fun.

    "I think it's cool," said Webb. "I try to be as positive as I can. I really don't want people to think that this is like a burden. It's still a pretty new thing to me, so I'm sort of getting accustomed to carrying myself and being in the public eye. I'm not quite Michael Jordan, but it's a little bit different than what I've had in the past."

    Girls call his house and strangers honk at him while he's running. He gives a friendly wave. "People know who I am," said Webb, who was elected student body president. "I'd like to think it's not because of my running, it's just my dazzling good looks."

    He flashes a big smile. "I know it's just because I run fast."

    A top-notch swimmer

    Growing up in suburban Washington, running wasn't Webb's first sport, even though he was the fastest kid in his class in Presidential Physical Fitness tests. He was a swimmer "from age zero," a top age-grouper in the breaststroke at 11 and eventually trained with Olympian Tom Dolan's club.

    Although Webb loved swimming, he wanted to explore his potential in track and field. As a freshman, he was state champ in the two-mile. However, his schedule became too much for him.

    "He said, 'Mom, I can do two, but I can't do three,' hoping that I would say, 'Well, you can just give up school,' " Katherine Webb said. "But I didn't say that."

    Webb's parents Steven is an economist for the World Bank and Katherine is a speech pathologist at a local school have been supportive but never pushy. They let Webb, the third of four kids, make his own decision.

    "I just got this feeling, this is it," Webb said. "There's no way this can't be it."

    He credits swimming for building his cardiovascular system without the wear and tear on his legs. Raczko, 29, began training him as a sophomore. "We're very, very fortunate," said Katherine Webb, "that he knows what he's doing."

    As a full-time runner, Webb dropped 17 seconds in his mile time to 4:06 and broke Ryun's record for sophomores "which was kind of like, 'Whoa, I didn't expect that,'" Webb said.

    Now a member of Congress, Ryun (R-Kan), invited Webb to his office on Capitol Hill. He told Webb, "Don't think about the impossible being impossible, but think about the impossible being possible."

    Ryun said that Webb reminds him of "a young guy about 36, 37 years ago" who is "willing to take on whoever's there and run with the best."

    Off to Michigan

    Although Webb admires the congressman and took the time to read his book and watch a documentary, he said, "I don't want to be Jim Ryun; I want to be Alan Webb. He was a great athlete, and he's an inspiration to probably every U.S. high school miler in the country. But Jim Ryun ran his best times when he was 19, which is not what I want to do."

    To that end, he'll go to Michigan, where Warhurst shares Raczko's philosophy on training and will increase his mileage gradually. This season, Webb ran 50-60 miles a week, which is considered low for a distance runner but has worked well for him. Webb has run 1:47.74 in the 800 meters, fourth-fastest by a U.S. high schooler, and a 47.4 split on a 4x400 relay.

    "Obviously, he's got some genetic tools that a lot of other people don't have," Warhurst said, "an internal respiratory system, resting heart rate, and tremendous capacity for speed training which is the key to the mile."

    Raczko said Webb also has good pain tolerance, is extremely driven by goals and very dedicated, "the last one to leave practice type of thing. And he understands everything about the sport. He's really taken the time to learn. He knows what he does and why he does it."

    At 5 feet 9, Webb is shorter than Ryun and has a bigger upper body than most runners because of his swimming background. But Steve Prefontaine wasn't skinny, either.

    His form, which is "worlds better," Webb said, sometimes resembles a sprinter's.

    "I think there's lots of indications that I'm not finished getting better," said Webb, who scoffs at suggestions that he should turn pro instead of going to college. "I think what I'm going to benefit most from is just time."

    A five-year plan

    His coaches have a five-year plan for him, which includes the 2004 Olympics in Athens when he's 21. "I think I'll be the perfect age, but I can't think about that," Webb said. "That's a long-term goal."

    Webb will carry "his one real superstition" with him to college. Before every race, he listens to a song by Everclear called "One Hit Wonder," and mouths the words "They cannot hurt you unless you let them."

    "Sometimes I sign autographs with that quote," he said. "It's a good way to think in terms of racing. For me now, wherever I go, there's going to be this hype, people are gonna expect a lot from me. But there's nothing that they can do to make you run faster, it's still up to you."

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