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.
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.