When we last left Alan Webb, approximately eight years ago, he had just broken Jim Ryun’s 36-year-old high school mile record.
This was in 2001, and for the first time in a long time — thanks to this 5-foot-9 waif from Reston, Va., whose time of 3:53.43 betered Ryun’s by nearly two seconds — Americans had a reason to be excited about the country’s future in middle-distance running. While track and field had taken a considerable hit in the past couple decades, Webb represented a resurgence of sorts — and the national buzz his feat created was nothing short of extensive.
There were talk shows and Sports Illustrated articles and a visit to the White House and a meeting with Ryun, the distance legend whose record he broke.
“It was one of those things that was really a life-changing event for me,” says Webb, who will compete in today’s Glenn Cunningham Invitational Mile at the Kansas Relays at 12:55 p.m. “One-hundred percent. It changed the course of my life forever, really. … It totally changed my outlook on what I thought I could be.”
Much has happened in the years since. He signed with the University of Michigan. He left school after a year to turn professional. He earned a sponsorship deal with Nike. He got a tattoo, broke the American record in the mile run and, in many regards, enjoyed the kind of career many anticipated all those years ago.
But the high school mile record seems to be what people remember, a feat that has remained as celebrated as any he has accomplished since.
Even now, as one of the country’s top track and field athletes, he seems astonished at some of the twists and turns his life has taken, some of the events that have transpired because an accomplishment that took place eight years ago.
Heading into today’s race, Webb hopes to rebound from a 2008 season that fell short of expectations. Bolstered by the promise of a standout ’07 campaign — when he set the American record in the mile with a time of 3 minutes, 46.91 seconds — he hammered away and hammered away and hammered away in ’08, until he eventually hammered too much. By the end of the year, he was struggling mightily, and, as it turned out, lacked the strength and confidence necessary to earn a spot in the Beijing Olympics. In the Olympic Trials on June 6, he faltered to a fifth-place finish in the men’s 1,500-meter run, well behind winner Bernard Lagat, and missed out on a chance to compete in the ’08 Olympic Games.
“I got so excited about the possibility of doing special things that I just got a little too aggressive with my approach for 2008 and the training that went into it,” Webb said. “I went overboard and made changes that I think ended up being not good, when I should have just stuck with what worked.”
He’s determined not to make the same mistake this year.
He’ll get his first shot at redemption today. On Friday, during a pre-race news conference at Kansas’ Memorial Stadium, Webb called today’s race his “Opening Day,” a chance to start 2009 on a high note.