Teen-ager reviving U.S. interest in mile

Caught up in the Webb

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2001

EUGENE, Ore. -- Alan Webb could be the track star America has been seeking, the miler who ignites enthusiasm in the sport again in this country.

Not since the mid-1960s when Jim Ryun was the king of the milers have track fans become so enamored with such a distance runner.

That was obvious Sunday after the 18-year-old Webb, a senior at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., smashed two of Ryun's hallowed scholastic records from 1965 at the Prefontaine Classic. He broke his 1,500-meter record of 3 minutes, 39.0 seconds with a time of 3:38.26 en route to completing the mile in a stunning 3:53.43, eclipsing the mark of 3:55.9.

First, there was the standing ovation when he finished the race in fifth place against some of the world's greatest milers, including world record-holder Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, the winner in a U.S. all-comers' record of 3:49.92.

Then, there were the standing ovations as he took two victory laps, first with El Guerrouj, then by himself.

Finally, there was Webb sitting at a table just off the Hayward Field track, besieged by hundreds of autograph seekers. Webb obliged them all, signing posters, T-shirts, programs, scraps of paper, sneakers and jackets. The autograph session lasted more than an hour after the meet.

He also posed for pictures, did interviews, and in a most unusual gesture, talked by cell phone to a coach in Illinois of one admiring teen-ager.

It was similar to the scene at last month's Arcadia Invitational in California, only on a bigger scale.

''Fellow high schoolers flocked to him there,'' said Scott Raczko, Webb's coach. ''I thought that was incredible.

"This was amazing.''

Everyone was amazed by Webb's skillful race on the track and his maturity and poise off the track.

Marion Jones, the world's fastest women's sprinter, said it was exciting watching a ''phenom'' like Webb run. Maurice Greene, the world's fastest men's sprinter, said he wouldn't want to race Webb at a mile.

Ex-marathon great Alberto Salazar said Webb could be the ''best in the world. He's the greatest hope we've had since Jim Ryun.'' And Bob Kennedy, among the leading U.S. distance runners, called Webb's race ''spectacular.''

''He paced it out like accomplished runners do,'' said Jim Westphal, a 4:25 miler at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., who waited in line for the teen-ager's autograph. ''He nailed it.''

Westphal's girl friend, Barb Jacobson of North Bend, Wash., said, ''I never heard of him before, but he's an inspiration. He's uninhibited. I don't run, but this makes me want to start.''

''That's unbelievable,'' said Matthew Call, a 4:30 miler who attends Gonzaga. ''I didn't think there was any way in the world I would see a 3:53. I thought there was an outside chance he would get Ryun's record, but 3:53 is in another world.

''It's amazing that he's sitting here more than an hour after the meet signing autographs.''

Webb, the only American high school runner ever to run a sub-four minute mile indoors, understood the significance of shattering Ryun's revered records.

''I broke the records of an American distance running legend,'' he said. ''Those records were out there a long time. People thought they were unattainable. I didn't think so. I was confident. I went for them. I didn't hold anything back.

''It still blows my mind that all those people wanted me to sign all those autographs. I couldn't believe it.''

Webb arrived in Eugene Thursday and was glad he came early.

''That enabled me to walk around the hotel lobby and see people like El Guerrouj, Maurice Greene and Jon Drummond,'' he said. ''I couldn't believe it. But that helped me relax around other high-level athletes.''

Raczko said Webb was nervous Thursday and Friday, but Saturday and Sunday he had calmed down and felt more comfortable. By the time he arrived at the track, he felt ready for a fast race.

And he ran superbly and smartly. After being in last place early, as he figured, he picked off a series of runners with his sparkling final lap.

His first three splits were 58.1, 1:57.8 and 2:58.4, compared to Ryun's 59.7, 2:00.5 and 3:01.4, with a blazing 53.9 final lap.

Even El Guerrouj was impressed, calling Webb possibly his next great rival.

The two might meet again this year -- in the 1,500 at the World Championships in Edmonton -- if Webb makes the U.S. team by finishing in the top three at next month's USA Championships, also at Hayward Field, his new favorite track.

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