Verzbicas adds U.S. junior triathlon title to his impressive record, then crashes

Needs 13 stitches after mishap in Sunday's team relay

Lukas Verzbicas winning the U.S. junior triathlon title.

Lukas Verzbicas winning the U.S. junior triathlon title. (Rich Cruse / USA Triathlon / December 16, 2013)

Lukas Verzbicas has been very clear in talking about his immediate sports future, insisting it lies in running.

But it was also clear from what Verzbicas said Saturday that he is going to miss the triathlon after winning what likely will be his final competition in the United States for several years.

Verzbicas even felt that way Sunday, when a crash in the bicycle leg of the team relay left him with 13 stitches in the right knee but no broken bones.

(Click here for a post-crash picture)

"I'll be fine," he said in a text message Sunday.  "The important thing is I won yesterday."

Saturday in Chula, Vista., Calif., the 18-year-old from Orland Hills won the U.S. junior individual title by more than a minute over Ben Kanute, 19, of Geneva, his teammate at the west suburban Multisport Madness club.

Verzbicas was fifth in the swim, eighth in the bike and a runaway winner - pardon the pun - in the run, giving him victory by 1 minute, 15.01 seconds.

Kelly Whitley of Geneva, another Multisports Madness athlete, won the junior women's race.

Verzbicas, the Tribune's Preps Plus Athlete of the Year for 2011, will enter the University of Oregon as a track and cross-country athlete after competing in the World Junior Triathlon Championships next month in Beijing.   He plans to focus entirely on running after the junior worlds.

"As of today, I have a bigger future in terms of how well I can do on the world scene in triathlon,'' Verzbicas said Saturday.  "I feel I need to give it a few years and see what I can do in running.

"I can always come back here (to triathlon).  Maybe it will take some time to come back, but I definitely don't want to look back and say `What could have been in running?'"

The Sandburg High School graduate extended his triathlon career to support another club teammate, 2010 world bronze medalist Kevin McDowell of Geneva, diagnosed this year with Hodgkin's lymphoma.  Verzbicas has vowed to bring home the world junior gold medal he -- and many others -- are sure McDowell would have won.

He finished his prep running career in June by breaking the national high school record in the two-mile and becoming the fifth U.S. high schooler to break four minutes in the mile.

Last month in Edmonton, Verzbicas won the Pan American Junior Championships in triathlon.

"Everyone knows Lukas is capable of winning the (senior) world championship in triathlon some day, but it isn't just about talent," said Multisports Madness team director Keith Dickson,  "You have to do the work, and the work is daunting.

"You need hard-core experience and the toughness that comes with it.  It's very different from just running.  If you want to be a world champion triathlete, you have to be a triathlete."

Sunday's crash did not deter Verzbicas, even though he went over the handlebars after touching wheels with a bike ahead of him.  It did not make him think leaving triathlon was a good idea to preserve his body for running.

"I have unfinished business in tri, and this will make the win (at worlds) mean so much more," he said in Sunday's text.  "This (crashing) makes the sport tough, not a reason to quit it."

Verzbicas was fourth in the world junior triathlon last year, almost certainly losing a medal because he got a time penalty for a rules violation in the transition area.  Many think he has a better chance at making the Olympics -- in 2016 -- as a triathlete than as a runner.

"I have learned that I can be one of the best if not the best in the world in triathlon," Verzbicas said in a Tribune interview this spring.  "No matter what I get out of running, if you see you can be one of the best at something, it gives you desire to do it.

"(But) I have a passion for running.  I don't have the same for triathlon.  I want to see where my future can be in running."

And, if that isn't what he hopes, Verzbicas can always go back to the future in triathlon.
CHICAGO

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