- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

Your typical 21-year-old by now has returned to classes after a summer break of rest and recreation. But Alan Webb is no typical 21-year-old. In fact, the nation’s top miler is still on vacation — cruising around town visiting friends, staying out late, even drinking a soda at night.

Webb had no time for vacation this summer until after his unfortunate early dismissal from the Olympic Games in Athens on Aug.20. Since then, he’s been on break, but it will end this week as he returns to his training regimen to prepare for the upcoming cross country season.

We met at the Cosi restaurant in Old Town on Friday and talked without interruption for nearly two hours, except for an autograph request from a woman claiming to be the 1992 Olympic swimming team captain. This, of course, diverted the conversation to Webb’s pre-running athletic career in swimming, for which he trained in middle school and into high school, alongside such aqua superstars as Dutch Olympian Inge de Bruijn.

Most impressive about Webb is that he is far more mature than most 21-year-olds — perhaps because he had to grow up quickly with all the national and international attention he began to receive after his record-breaking mile race as a high school senior in 2001.

The Reston resident talked candidly about a variety of issues in his life, but the one that would be easy to dwell on — his disappointment at the Olympics — Webb already has put into perspective.

“It was a good learning experience,” Webb said. “Maybe I just wasn’t ready to do it. But that’s OK. It’s different now because I have the confidence. I see this year as really getting my confidence back. I finally made it back. I have had a lot of pressure on myself since high school. When people come up to me in a store like in Reston, they congratulate me on a great year, not on the Olympics. I think I had a great year. I have a lot of motivation now.”

Webb specifically addressed the first round of the Olympic 1,500 meters and said he wasn’t quite sure how to race. Instead of being aggressive, he ran somewhat tentatively, got spiked and shoved and ended up a shade slower than the final qualifying times, nearly nine seconds off his recent personal best.

“The reason I didn’t do well was because I didn’t race the way I had all year,” Webb said.

I am sure he would love to have that race back for another try, and I am sure he has played that race over and over and over, but it appears he has moved forward.

“The good news is that I am not banged up, I have so much time, that’s easy to swallow after the Olympics.”

Webb said some encouraging words from his longtime coach, Scott Raczko, helped ease the pain shortly after the race. Raczko recalled that in 1983, American Sydney Maree set the world record in the 1,500 but failed to make the final of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

It happens to the best of them.

“If I keep improving like this, it will be amazing,” Webb said. “I want to be the best runner in the world. I always knew I had more left in me than a 3:53.”

That was the mile time that changed Webb’s life forever, on May27, 2001, on the famed Hayward Field track in Eugene, Ore. Then for three excruciatingly long years, Webb couldn’t even buy a personal best.

“I knew it was a matter of time,” he said. “It was frustrating. My workouts were going as well as they had before, so it wasn’t a matter of whether it would happen, just when.”

Was there a defining moment?

“Definitely, it was Home Depot,” Webb said without hesitation. “I knew once I had [set a personal record] and I was moving on, I was better than I was in high school.”

He was referring to the Home Depot meet in California on May22 where he won the 1,500 meters in 3:35.71 — equivalent to a 3:51 mile. His goal was to begin working toward the Olympic 1,500 standard of 3:36.20 and to make the Olympic team, which had been a goal since he started playing sports at age 6.

“I thought [qualifying for the Olympics] would be more of a struggle,” Webb said. “First, I [set a PR] at Home Depot; second, it was my first big meet against the big guys; and third, I got the Olympic standard. I came into that meet without too high an expectation and was pleasantly surprised.”

Now Webb has stopped living each workout and each race as his last. He sees at least three more Olympics in his future.

“A lot of that long-term thinking has come from my coach,” he said. “Before, I was making a lot of the decisions.”

This season you will not see Webb in class at George Mason University, where he would be a junior studying economics. Schoolwork will begin in January. This week he will begin to focus on preparing for the 2005 IAAF World Track & Field Championships from Aug.5 to Aug.14 in Helsinki.

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