Choices and Trade-Offs

Choices and Trade-Offs

Choices and Trade-Offs

Now that the much-anticipated decision has been made and Alan Webb has packed his bags and returned to Virginia, it seems as though everyone has an opinion on the merits of the move. One camp argues that the college system wouldn't have done him any good anyway, and that he should stick with the program that brought him so much success. The other camp states that the three-season schedule and varied levels of competition in college would have provided the experience and exposure necessary to compete at the international level. But by returning home and reuniting with his high school coach, Alan may find a level of comfort and confidence that he seems to have lost during his year in Ann Arbor.

Let me say right off that I don't know Alan Webb. I have never met him or his high school coach, and all that I know about the situation is what I have read in Running Times, the Ann Arbor News and the Washington Post. So for me to judge the validity of his decision would be inappropriate at best. What I gather from newspaper articles and such is that disappointment, frustration, and a lack of confidence in Ron Warhurst's training system convinced him that he would be better off at home, in a familiar environment, with a familiar coach, and in a training routine that has proven successful in the past. And I'm sure the shoe contract offers were appealing as well.

From what I have read, it appears that Alan was unhappy at Michigan, and that this unhappiness involved more than just running. And running aside, if he wasn't happy then Michigan wasn't the right place for him. Maybe, given his priorities and goals, no college is right for him. Alan had to make the best decision he could, without the aid of a crystal ball or 20/20 hindsight. Maybe an additional year would have made a difference. As I wrote in an earlier column, the majority of high school prodigies hit some rough sports when they start college. But it's hard to tell a talented and anxious 19-year-old to wait another year, and there's no guarantee that things wouldn't have just gotten worse.

I did watch Alan run at a cross country meet last fall, and like many others in the area, I was thoroughly impressed and am sorry that I won't have that opportunity again this fall (although I won't miss the $4 admission charge). But, as Coach Warhurst told one newspaper, the Michigan program existed before Alan Webb and it will exist after him. It's just a little less exciting for the local running community, particularly the high school runners who came in droves last year to watch him run.

I guess my strongest reaction to Alan's leaving was a sense of sadness. Not that I wouldn't get to see him race again, and not that Michigan was losing its superstar, but that in deciding to "turn pro," Alan was closing the door on what was for me and for a number of college runners, one of the greatest benefits of collegiate competition: being part of a team. Regardless of championships won or records set, the experiences and lessons learned from being part of a team last well beyond graduation. If you're lucky and the chemistry is there, your teammates become life-long friends. Sometimes the lessons learned are perseverance, patience, and diplomacy. You may not like someone - heck, you may hate his guts - but as part of a team you learn to put your personal feelings aside for the benefit of the whole. Being part of a team teaches you how to work with other people, to live with other people, to support and be supported. It teaches self-discipline and humility, generosity and empathy, responsibility and reliability. Being part of a team allows you to see people at their best, their worst, and everywhere in between. Good times are so much better and bad times are so much more tolerable when you have other people to share them with.

I'm sorry that Michigan didn't work out for Alan. I wish he had felt comfortable here, felt that this was where he belonged and that he could flourish as an athlete and as a person. I hope he is successful and realizes all his dreams. And I certainly don't want to imply that he is destined for a life of loneliness and solitude. He'll have friends and training partners, of course. I just think that a different kind of bond develops among members of a college team, even those who don't become close friends. College is a fascinating, exasperating, exhilarating time of life; "the last four formative years," a former Harvard president once said. And paychecks from Nike don't offer much solace when you're going through a rough patch of training or coping with a frustrating injury. I just hope that in opening the door for one dream, he hasn't inadvertently shut the door on something that may have been less tangible but far more intrinsically valuable.