Sixth in an occasional series profiling US Olympic hopefuls training for the Summer Games in London.
EUGENE, Ore. - The Friday morning quiet of Hayward Field is pierced by buzzing mowers and chatting groundskeepers. As they groom the US track mecca, Andrew Wheating strides down the backstretch, engaged in his own meticulous preparations. Tall and lean and light on his feet, he looks more serious than usual. The speed workout ahead will tell him much about his fitness after an injury-plagued year, about the pace of his progress toward this week’s US Olympic track and field trials.
The workout starts with Wheating strategically placed 10 yards behind another runner. For the next 40 minutes, Wheating plays catch-up, pursuing the runner over intervals that range from 200 meters to 400 meters. He never overtakes the runner, but he does achieve the desired balance of speed and easy effort.
“It was a massive turning point,’’ said Wheating. “You find a workout like that flips your mentality completely. When I finished, I was like, ‘I can definitely run fast if I need to.’ I’m beginning to believe I’m as fast as I once was.’’
Wheating, 24, is chasing an Olympic berth, and being chased by his success at the last trials. Four years ago at Hayward Field, Wheating shocked the US track world with a second-place finish in the 800, clinching a spot on the Olympic team as a University of Oregon sophomore.
Kicking off the final turn, he surged from the back of the pack to silver in 1:45.03, crossing the line in disbelief. Still learning the art of middle-distance racing, the 6-foot-5-inch Wheating became the next big thing in US track and field - the kid from Vermont with the fresh young face and the floppy hair.
But track and field success rarely follows a straight path. Wheating felt pressure to validate his Olympic berth and, he said, “lost the purity and fun of the sport’’ in his junior year.
Then, after NCAA titles in the 800 and 1,500 as a senior, he suffered a strained left calf in December 2010, followed by a right hamstring injury. In early May, he returned to racing for the first time in nearly nine months.
Approaching the trials, Wheating is undecided about whether he will run the 800 or 1,500 or both. That decision will come in a few days. Regardless of which events he chooses, he enters the competition as a full-time professional runner expected to make a return trip to the Olympics - far from the naive 20-year-old who secured a spot on the team in 2008.
Yet the recent injuries and up-down-up performances this spring also make Wheating something of an unpredictable quantity, very similar to the way it was in 2008.
“It’d be great to make this team with full legitimacy,’’ said Wheating. “It would be a chance to go back to the Olympics for business and not get caught up in the pleasure aspect of it.
“In Beijing, there was LeBron James walking around and it was hard not to get distracted and feel a little out of place. I felt like it was kind of a fluke that I made the team to begin with.’’
A push from Prefontaine
Almost everyone at tiny Kimball Union Academy in Meriden, N.H., wondered when Wheating would switch from soccer to cross-country. He seemed such a natural runner. Before his junior year of high school, Wheating easily cruised through the mile in five minutes, leaving even his soccer coach to tactfully suggest he try cross-country. But as far as Wheating could tell, that lacked the “cool factor’’ that came with soccer.
His best friend suggested that Wheating try cross-country that fall. There was always spring soccer. Wheating did, and won all of his private school cross-country races that season.
Still, he wasn’t entirely sold on running.
Then, a Spanish teacher who was an avid runner handed Wheating a copy of the Steve Prefontaine biopic, “Without Limits.’’ The sport looked a lot different when Prefontaine was setting American records with his aggressive style.
“Pre made running cool,’’ said Wheating, who keeps a banner that shows Prefontaine running at Hayward Field above his desk at his Eugene home. The quote on the banner reads: “I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it.’’
The quote fits Wheating’s approach, too.
“He was always about pushing the pace and using his guts to push the pace,’’ said Wheating. “I use my guts for the last 200 meters.
“Races are a matter of running to win. When people start saying, ‘If he doesn’t run this . . .,’ or ‘If he can beat this guy . . .,’ it puts added pressure on it. And it seems stupid to me. Since when does a race mean more than trying to win? That’s all I’ve ever considered it.’’
But as his cross-country winning streak continued as a senior, it was left to his parents to find races and goals that challenged Wheating. A lot of Googling went on in the Wheating home in Norwich, Vt.
“I was Googling things like Junior Olympics, what it was and how you get in it,’’ said his mother, Betsy Wheating. “And when you start Googling, you end up in places you never realize you’d get to.
“I got into these areas where they have records of everything. All of a sudden it said Vermont had no one who’d been under four minutes in the mile. I thought, ‘Well, hey, that’s kind of a fun thing.’ So, I threw that at him one day. It sat in his brain until the time was right.’’
Wheating broke the four-minute mile with a 3:58.16 his sophomore spring at Oregon, becoming the first Vermont runner to do it. Not bad for a small-town kid from a high school that had no track and field team.
With raw talent, determination, and inspiration to spare in high school, Wheating found a track coach in Jeff Johnson his senior year. Or, more accurately, serendipitous connections brought the pair together for dinner one night at Molly’s Restaurant in Hanover, N.H. Kimball Union administrator Dave Faucher, a longtime Johnson friend, set up the meeting.
“When I saw Andrew playing basketball, it hit a nerve,’’ said Faucher, a former marathoner who now coaches basketball at Daniel Webster College. “I thought, ‘Doesn’t he have an obligation to pursue his potential in running?’
“I asked him if he would like to run and have a coach. He goes, ‘Yeah.’ That’s about how simple it was.’’
At that first dinner, little did Wheating know that Johnson was Nike’s “first employee,’’ an early executive who came up with the company name. By the time Wheating met him, Johnson had left the business world far behind, settled in New Hampshire, and returned to coaching.
Johnson peppered Wheating with questions about his training, about mileage and workouts. And Wheating offered the answers of an inexperienced runner, with logic that, by his own admission, “was really off on another planet.’’
But Johnson saw something promising in the lanky kid, a sincerity about his interest in running. Johnson handed Wheating an orange binder and asked him to create a training log.
“I looked at him like he was some crazy old kook from New Hampshire,’’ said Wheating.
Johnson was crazy enough to call an old friend, Oregon coach Vin Lananna, and talk up Wheating, even though the young runner had no track times to his credit.
“Jeff calls me out of the blue one day and tells me about Andrew,’’ said Lananna. “I ask, ‘What does he run?’ Jeff says, ‘Well, he doesn’t have any track times. Actually, I’ve hardly ever seen him run.’ I said, ‘OK, Jeff, let me know when it comes through.’
“Now, Jeff Johnson looks like a genius. And, of course, I take the credit for listening to him, even though I was listening to him with tongue in cheek.’’
Lananna did take time to meet with Wheating when he visited his sons at Dartmouth later that winter. He liked what he saw and heard. With Johnson’s recommendation still fresh, and some respectable times on Wheating’s résumé, including a 3:56 in the 1,500, Lananna scheduled a spring recruiting visit.
Wheating liked what he saw and heard, and he committed to the school.
“When I found out who Jeff was, what he did for Nike and for running, it was like, ‘Wow, I’ve struck gold,’ ’’ said Wheating. “Later on, in college, my parents and I sat down and talked about how incredible it all was, the line of people I met in order to get to the coaches I’ve had.
“You don’t really see things like that. You start to believe in things like fate. You start to believe that this is supposed to happen.’’
Not a one-track mind
Wheating lives in a two-bedroom bungalow six blocks from Hayward Field with his brother Julian and two rambunctious dogs. To keep from focusing too much on his training, he keeps a vegetable garden in the backyard and creates comedic web videos. Ideas for the videos come during runs with training partner Russell Brown and follow the philosophy, “What would Jim Carrey do?’’ That has resulted in one sketch in which Wheating struts outside his house in drag.
“I’ve always been unafraid to do goofy stuff like that,’’ said Wheating. “As a runner, you can kind of get inside your own mind and think, ‘If I leave the house, something bad can happen,’ especially with the trials this year.
“Sometimes it’s hard to convince yourself to get out and live your life. There’s a lot of unspoken pressure on a performance that lasts two minutes or four minutes. It can be frustrating just sitting around thinking about it all the time.’’
That said, Lananna credits part of Wheating’s success to his childlike enthusiasm, to never taking his career too seriously, and “to being able to wake up each day and put the day before behind him.’’
Good qualities to have in an Olympic year, when you are battling back from injury and posting performances this spring that ranged from last place in the mile at the Pre Classic in 3:56.77 to a recent 1,500 win at the Harry Jerome Track Classic in 3:35.89. The last result was a much-appreciated confidence booster heading into the trials.
“I know what fast means,’’ said Wheating. “I know what the standards are. I know what the world records are. I know what it takes to be the best in the world, instead of that pure dumb luck of working out and seeing how the races go. Now, it’s working out and knowing what I’m up against.’’