3:27 PM CST, November 11, 2011
In a moment of triumph, Lukas Verzbicas began to have doubts about his decision to abandon triathlon and become a runner at the University of Oregon.
Verzbicas started to think his gold medal at September's World Junior Triathlon Championships looked like a clear sign that his future lay in that sport.
At the same time, it also made him wonder about ever being able to achieve a similar stature in running.
Yes, Verzbicas had said as he was finishing his high school career that his passion was for running, not triathlon.
"I wasn't a world champion then," he explained Friday. "Everything really changed because of that. "
Less than two months after arriving at Oregon for his freshman year, the 18-year-old Verzbicas decided to leave both the school and running and focus his athletic energies on making the Olympics in triathlon. Friday morning, he talked for the first time about what led to the dramatic change of plans announced Thursday, several days after Verzbicas had moved to his family's new home in Colorado Springs.
"I was really set on running," he said during a lengthy telephone conversation. "But it took a lot of time for me to realize what I was best at.
"As a triathlete, I could really make an impact for the sport and only have good things happen. As a runner, I don't know. Maybe I could be in the top 20 in the world, maybe the top 10, but I wouldn't make such an impact."
It wasn't as easy to look at the situation from that perspective when the track world was swooning over Verzbicas last June. First he set a national high school record in the two-mile. Then he became just the fifth U.S. high schooler to break four minutes in the mile with a time of 3 minutes, 59.71 seconds.
As impressive as that mile time looked by U.S. standards, it is not as remarkable when judged against the best metric mile times posted by the world's top juniors this year. Twenty juniors (19 & under) ran metric miles from 3:32.02 to 3:40.60; factored for the 1,500, Verzbicas' mile would have been approximately 3:42.
Even though Verzbicas likely would eventually have been more suited for longer distances than the mile, he began to ask himself, "Just how good can I be at running?"
"Maybe I could be the best in the nation," he said. "I don't know how I will feel later, but I can't see myself now running a 2:03 marathon or a 12:35 for 5,000, which is what it would take to be the top world level."
During the weeks at Oregon, when he would be first demoralized and then disappointed by his performances in the two cross-country meets he ran for the school, Verzbicas came to feel his body was there but his mind was elsewhere.
"I definitely did not lose my passion for running," he said. "But doing the world triathlon championships for someone else made me realize a lot of things and made me feel a lot different about that sport than I had before."
Verzbicas, a Sandburg High School graduate from Palos Heights, resumed training for triathlon last summer after a year of concentrating on running because he was fulfilling a promise to bring home gold as a tribute to his friend, Kevin McDowell, who would have been the favorite. McDowell was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in March and, after undergoing chemotherapy, attended worlds as a spectator.
"At first, the (triathlon) training was very hard, and I didn't want to do it," Verzbicas said. "Then, it all started to come together, and I grew to love it."
Verzbicas said he has no regrets about starting at Oregon.
"I needed to go through this," he said. "Now I know both sides, and I know what each (sport) offers, and I could make a better decision. I think you have to go through a lot of downfalls and such to be at the top."
Verzbicas. a two time national prep champion in cross-country, admits that he could have given running at Oregon more time. His stepfather, Romas Bertulis, wanted him to stick it out, but he lacked the desire to continue.
"I was in the best collegiate (running) program in history and the best collegiate program for distance running, but when you're thinking something totally different, that can't help you," he said.
"Oregon gave me all I needed. The problem was just deep inside me. I wasn't inspired, and that was nobody's fault but mine. It's unfortunate this all happened."
Verzbicas began to think seriously about leaving after the Oct. 29 Pac-12 Championships, where he was the fourth Oregon finisher and 23rd overall. Some comments on running web sites have criticized him for the timing of his departure, with Oregon preparing for Saturday's NCAA West Regional meet.
"In all honesty, I think I would not have been much help to my team," he said. "Someone else having this opportunity will benefit (from it) a lot more than me."
Verzbicas was pleased that Oregon coach Vin Lananna said in a Thursday statement that the door would be open if he wanted to return. (Lananna did not respond to messages seeking further comment.)
"When we recruited Lukas, we knew he was a very talented athlete with opportunities in both sports, and we were delighted he chose to attend the University of Oregon and focus on track and field," Lananna also said in the statement. "Given his recent success at the World Junior Triathlon Championship in Beijing, we can appreciate his desire to follow his dreams and support his desire to pursue his athletic goals."
Verzbicas intends to enroll at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, where athletes in USA Triathlon's new elite academy are on scholarship. Two of the five currently in the academy also are from Chicago's west suburbs: McDowell and Kelly Whitley of Geneva. Bertulis is the academy's coach.
It is highly unlikely Verzbicas can qualify for the 2012 Olympics.
He lacks experience at the senior level, having never done an Olympic distance triathlon, where each of the three disciplines is twice as long as the junior level.
Verzbicas, undoubtedly the most gifted U.S. runner ever to choose triathlon, plans to make his senior debut at the Jan. 13 Pan American Championships in Argentina. From there, he needs to get high finishes in enough races to rank among the top eight U.S. men, who earn places in a May 12-13 ITU World Championship Series meet in San Diego, where Olympic places are at stake.
And then there is the matter of U.S. citizenship, necessary to compete for the United States in the Olympics. At this point, the Lithuania-born Verzbicas, who has a green card, is not expected to gain U.S. citizenship before the London Games.
So his more realistic goal is the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"I'm thinking long term," he said.
After 2016, Verzbicas said, he might even consider a return to running. But there are much better financial opportunities for an elite triathlete than an elite distance runner, with the exception of the top marathoners.
"Sure, money is a big part of being an athlete, and I understand that," he said. "But the main point is to be happy in what you do and be successful."
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