The nation's top-ranked high school cross-country runner might not be running at all if not for a chance meeting a few years ago with the man who would become his coach.
Ammar Moussa was something of a troublemaker in middle school, smart but enough of a handful that his parents were considering sparing the local high school and jumping him into an accelerated academic program.
Everything changed the day he entered the mile in a youth track meet.
A novice wearing soccer shorts and tennis shoes, he started off in a sprint and barely finished. But he caught the eye of Arcadia High Coach Jim O'Brien, whose school was hosting the meet.
"The way he approached the race was like a total rookie," O'Brien said. "But miraculously, he held on for a 5:36."
That's five minutes 36 seconds — fast for an eighth-grader but, as it turned out, only a hint of what was to come.
"If you send him to Arcadia, I promise I'll look after him," O'Brien told Moussa's parents. "I'll make sure he does the right thing in the classroom. I'll make sure he does the right thing with his team."
The sales pitch worked. The words, however, came easier than any actual transformation.
As an underclassman at Arcadia, Moussa said that he was "selfish, cocky, brash and didn't think I needed my team."
How far he's come.
These days, Moussa is being recruited by dozens of top colleges and his dreams of running in the Olympics seem well within reach. O'Brien likens him to the legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine and added, "He is the best runner Arcadia has ever had, and we've had an Olympian, Tracy Smith, so that says a lot."
And how's this for an example of being focused and passionate about his sport:
Arcadia was midway through a 10-day preseason high-altitude training camp in Mammoth, Calif., when Ramadan began. A devout Muslim, Moussa was unwilling to sacrifice his religion or his commitment to running.
That meant completing his workouts — an average of 15 miles a day at altitudes that approached 12,000 feet — without eating or drinking water from sunup to sundown.
"That's very taxing," said Ron Allice, director of track and field at USC. "I'm not sure how he did that."
Moussa, who is 5 feet 7 and 125 pounds, said lunchtime was hard but thirst was even worse. After hours of sucking in dry mountain air under a blistering summer sun, he was sometimes so parched he'd feel as if he was going to faint.
"I'd definitely struggle sometimes and want to collapse," he said.
Experts say runners are supposed to drink about a half a cup of water for every mile they run. And then there were all the extra calories he was burning.
Yet Moussa was the first to finish every workout, and his coaches say he never once complained.
"I knew it would give me an edge over competitors," Moussa said. "That's what I'd tell myself to get through it; that was probably the only thing getting me through it."
That and an unusual eating schedule.
Moussa would wake up at 4 a.m., before sunrise, and try to be as quiet as possible while he prayed, reheated leftovers from the night before, and drank as much water as his stomach could hold. He wouldn't eat or drink again until around 8 p.m., when the sun set behind the mountains.
Between those times, he ran twice a day, at 6:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Moussa credits those kinds of challenges and the rigorous demands of cross-country training for teaching him discipline, helping him gain focus in the rest of his life, and becoming a better teammate.
He remembers that only two years ago he began the 5-kilometer state cross-country finals sandwiched between competitors, panicked when he broke loose, and quickly disregarded everything he had been taught about pacing.
"I decided that I'm gonna run my race and not care about anybody else and do what I need to do," Moussa recalled. Covering the first part of the race way too fast, he finished sapped of energy and in a disappointing time of 15:39 as Arcadia's team fell to fourth place.
"After that race, to be honest, I cried," Moussa said. He also vowed that it would never happen again.
Moussa took over the top national ranking with a time of 14:36.70 at the Stanford Invitational in September.
Pacing is no longer a problem. Since that state championship debacle, he's developed an amazingly accurate inner clock.
"I can take his watch off and tell him to run 60-second [quarter-miles]," O'Brien said, "and almost every time he'll be within a second of that time, plus or minus."
When Moussa returned to the state finals as a junior, he won the Division I championship in 14:59, the fastest time in any division. He then went on to finish fourth at the Nike Cross-Country Nationals finals.
His road toward the nationals continues Saturday at the Southern Section preliminaries at Mt. San Antonio College, which are followed by the section finals at Mt. SAC a week later, then by the state championships in Woodward Park in Fresno on Nov. 27.
Whatever happens, in running or aside from running, Moussa has come a long way.
For example, when he talks about conquered challenges, he doesn't talk about his individual accomplishments; he talks about his team.
Such as those tough times in Mammoth.
"My teammates had my back and would dump water on my head when it was blazing hot out," he said. "I wouldn't be where I am without them."