Recounting a typical moment from his first weeks at Michigan, Alan Webb lays out the scenario of standing with a group of his classmates in casual conversation. The subject will shift to track, and then the identity of the unassuming 5-foot-9, 140-pound freshman will be revealed.
“Eventually one person will say, “Are you that runner guy?” And I say, “Yeah, that”s me,” ” Webb said. “It”s not like I”m instanteously recognized. I”m not quite that popular.
“I”m working on it, though,” he added with a smile.
Webb knows that he is “that runner guy.”
He”s not a superstar, but he”s not anonymous. He”s in the national spotlight, but on the edge where he”s not fully illuminated. Webb comes to Michigan as a highly-touted recruit, but in a sport most of the nation doesn”t really notice.
The fact that Webb elevated himself to being recognized as “that runner guy” shows the impressive nature of his accomplishments.
Webb gained national attention when he broke legendary American distance runner and current Kansas congressman Jim Ryun”s high school sophomore record for the mile in 1998. He solidified himself as one of the best young track stars at the Penn Relays in 2000. Representing his South Lakes High School of Reston, Va., he ran a 3:59.9 1,600-meter split a meet record.
Webb then set the high school records for both the indoor and outdoor mile, making not just the track world stand up and notice, but the rest of the country as well.
The freshman entered Michigan off a summer with experiences that make the challenge of starting college look more like a relatively tame conclusion rather than an exciting new beginning. His last few months before school started were a whirlwind of celebrity-style appearances. He was showered with accolades and awards.
Webb already knows the pressures of track”s expectations, of fans” expectations, of camera lights, of magazine interviews, of photo-shoots and of being in demand.
He was named the country”s “Best Amateur Athlete” by Time magazine. He”s been covered in USA Today, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and The Washington Post. ESPN broadcasted one of his races live on SportsCenter. He”s been on several morning shows, The Late Show with David Letterman and he accepted an invitation to the White House for a tee-ball game. Alan Webb memorabilia has even been auctioned off on eBay.
And in the words of Michigan track coach Ron Warhurst, he”s handling it “like a pro.”
He may be handling it better than a pro. He doesn”t simply treat the national media attention as business as usual. He eats it up.
“It”s flattering. I”m not surprised that I”ve gotten attention, but I”m a little surprised at the scale at some points,” Webb said. “It”s been a lot of fun, I”ve had a lot of great experiences. I can”t see a negative in it.
“I never really thought I”d be in this position, but now that I am, it”s definitely been fun.”
Warhurst has coached runners of high caliber at Michigan, including past Olympians. But he”s never had a track athlete come in this highly publicized.
“Nobody has,” he said.
In January, Webb finally reached his goal and broke the four-minute mile for the high school indoor record with a time of 3:59.86 at the New Balance Games at New York City”s Armory.
Webb opened even more eyes to his talent at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. On May 27, the 36-year-old high school outdoor mile record held by Ryun fell to Webb”s 3:53.43, surpassing Ryun”s mark by almost two full seconds.
He broke an impossible record by setting an even more impossibly high standard.
“It felt so good to exceed anybody”s expectations, including my own,” Webb said. “The best part was that in my own mind, I knew that I had worked really hard to do that. And I can tell you that I sacrificed a lot, that”s why it felt so good. I put in the time and I like to think that I deserved it.”
The attention heightened, and the spotlight brightened after Webb proved he was the best high school miler that the country had ever seen.
Although he”s got a long way to go, some people have anointed Webb as the great American hope for distance running a sport long dominated by foreign nations.
The long-term outlook places Webb as a challenger in the Olympics Warhurst says maybe by 2004, and certainly by 2008. With proper training, Olympic medals and an American record are plausible dreams for Webb.
“It”s hard to predict for seven or eight years in the future,” Warhurst said. “But they take freshmen in college and predict them as first-round draft picks, so I figure what the hell.”
Warhurst takes over where Webb”s high school coach Scott Raczko left off.
During the recruiting process, the two coaches befriended each other and discussed how Webb”s training had gone and how he should continue to develop at the next level. Based on what Warhurst had done with his runners in the past and how he intended to handle Webb, both agreed Michigan would be a smooth transition.
Webb, who was born in Ann Arbor, had his sights set on Michigan early on and was never swayed.
The fact that both his parents once worked at the University and that he grew up as a Wolverine fan despite moving away early in his childhood were hardly deciding factors. It was the program and school itself, the coaches and runners.
Webb is putting no time frame on his hopes for the future. For now, the goals are much simpler than mastering the world. Suddenly transformed from high school senior and record holder to unproven college freshman, Webb is no longer looking at which top times are within his grasp.
“I”m out of high school. Those records are now gone. My chance to do anything else in that category is done,” Webb said. “Now I”m at the collegiate level and I just want to keep things very general at this moment. In the future I”ll have more specific championship, title goals. For now it”s just general improvement.”