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Webb Became Tangled in Run to Greatness

Track: High school miler dropped out of Michigan and will turn pro after a freshman season of turmoil.

July 28, 2002|JEFF PASSAN | WASHINGTON POST

For Alan Webb, the Mount San Antonio College Relays last April had the potential to be a noteworthy day. Webb had returned from the nagging Achilles' tendinitis that kept him out of indoor competition at the University of Michigan and even talked about running a blazing 3 minute 38 seconds in the 1,500-meter race.

Instead Webb, who became a national celebrity after running a schoolboy-record 3:53.43 mile as a senior at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., finished ninth in 3:44.74. His teammates and coaches at Michigan called the meet the peak of Webb's frustration in a year marked by injury and disappointment.

Two months later, Webb left Michigan and turned professional.

Webb, 19, has declined to comment about his year at Michigan or his decision to turn professional. But teammates and coaches say that as Webb's year at Michigan wore on, the freshman withdrew from teammates, found solace in the words of his high school coach and left Ann Arbor with a combination of frustration, homesickness and burnout.

"He looked at his 3:53 and said, 'I'm already the fastest guy in the NCAA,' " said author Chris Lear, who shadowed the Michigan track team from January to June for a book. "He was looking for that coronation so he could say, 'I'm ready for the next level.' I don't think anyone expected him to struggle like he did."

Webb started his college career facing high expectations, and they stayed high throughout the fall. Shortly after arriving in Ann Arbor, Webb and the team were whisked to camp in Glen Arbor, Mich.

There, five hours from campus, the Wolverine runners got their first look at Webb: his upper body, strong and toned; his face, frozen in determination; and his legs kicking at an otherworldly pace.

"He was leading the workouts," said Ron Warhurst, Michigan's coach for 28 years. "Every one of them. ... He was more advanced than any other freshman I'd had in my career. He was even more advanced than anyone on the team," including all-American seniors Mike Wisniewski and Mark Pilja.

"Your gut reaction is to be in awe of the fact that you're running with someone who's famous," Pilja said. "It's like a basketball player finding out Michael Jordan is coming to your team. He just became one of the guys right away. You wouldn't know he was Alan Webb, the high school star."

On Oct. 14, Michigan charged $4 to watch its lone home meet--the first time the school charged for a cross-country meet. Webb won. He then blew away the field at the Big Ten championships, placed second in the Great Lakes regional meet and 11th at the NCAA meet, good enough to earn all-American honors.

Webb wasn't the best in the nation, but he was close, and being a bridesmaid in his second sport, cross-country, sat well with him, teammate Tom Greenless said.

But Webb's successful fall turned into a frustrating winter because of an injury he suffered while training for indoor track season on Dec. 15.

As he ran hills in Ann Arbor, his right foot landed strangely. He had injured his Achilles' tendon. Give it a couple weeks, Warhurst told him, and you'll be fine.

But the tendinitis lingered. Webb's desire to run grew. A month went by, then six weeks. Eventually, Webb decided to redshirt the indoor season.

"There was some separation from the team" after the injury, Stanko said. "He totally worried about himself. Didn't worry about the team. He would go off and do his own thing. During the fall, he loved being around the guys. He was really having a great time. That was reinforced because he was running well."

After the season, Webb said he fought homesickness all year. Others say more was bothering him.

Warhurst also said another struggle developed in the spring--one between him and Scott Raczko, Webb's high school coach. Raczko would call Webb's dorm room two to three times a week, sources said.

Warhurst said he felt his authority being undermined.

The two coaches said they agreed that they would wean Webb off Raczko.

But by April, Warhurst, 58, felt the plan wasn't working. Raczko was still the coach who led Webb to the 3:53, and because of that and perhaps his age (30), he was a more natural confidant. By late April, Warhurst felt he had to issue an ultimatum.

"I said to him, 'If you think your high school coach can coach you better than I can, we're wasting our time,' " Warhurst said.

Webb's performances were improving--on May 10, he ran the 1,500 in 3:41.46 to qualify for the NCAA meet. He won the Big Ten 1,500 on May 19. He would win all-American honors after the season.

But two days before the NCAA 1,500 final, USA Today published a story that talked about Webb turning professional. "I'm not thinking about it that much," he said.

His teammates and coaches were furious to learn that Webb was thinking about it, even a little bit. Warhurst said he believes some of the conversations between Raczko and Webb involved turning professional.

"It's totally untrue," Raczko said. "The reality is, Alan wanted to explore the professional thing."

Warhurst remains skeptical.

"I would've felt bad if I lost the kid because I couldn't coach him or we couldn't get along," he said. "But knowing there was the outside influence, I was in a no-win situation."

Webb drove home from Ann Arbor in early June. Ray Flynn, an agent who represents several professional track and field athletes, met with Webb and his family in Reston on June 13. Three days later, Webb signed with Flynn. Raczko detailed the plan: turn professional, leave Michigan, pick up classes at George Mason University and work toward becoming the best miler in the world.

The question lingers whether Webb is ready to race professionally. Tentative plans have him training this fall and winter and then competing on the professional circuit in Europe, Raczko said.

"These aren't high school or college kids," Warhurst said. "These are men earning a living. They're not going to be intimidated by a 19-year-old who ran 3:53."

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