High School Prodigies
by Laurel Park, May. 15, 2002
High School Prodigies
Following his less-then-phenomenal showing at this spring's Mt. SAC Relays and Penn Relays, the Monday-morning quarterbacking concerning Alan Webb's career has begun. Apparently because he failed to set a new world record, or blow everyone else out of the race, or single-handedly lift his relay team to a stunning victory, there are concerns about his training, his fitness, his decision to attend Michigan, heck - his decision to attend college. He should have signed a lucrative shoe contract and literally taken the money and run. He shouldn't have entrusted his valuable talent (America's "Great Mile Hope") to Ron Warhurst. He peaked in high school and will never realize his amazing potential. And so on, and so on.
Please. Give the kid a break. He's a college freshman, coming off one of the most fantastic senior years of high school that anyone could imagine. He had some injury problems during the winter. He was bound to have an off race or two along the way (how soon people forget his excellent cross-country season). Two sub-par meets does not the end of a career make.
I have a great deal of sympathy for high school prodigies. Of all the things I wish I were as a runner, I can honestly say that high school prodigy is not one of them. And I knew this back in high school, too. Of course I wanted to run faster and place in the state meet, but I didn't particularly want to be on top. One of my teammates was a multiple state champion in track, and I saw the pressure that was piled on her at every meet. She handled it remarkably well, and truly enjoyed her running. But I wouldn't have wanted the expectation of always winning, or setting a meet record, or running faster than in last week's meet, all the time. I wouldn't have wanted constant questions about which scholarship I would accept, or which college would best maximize my amazing potential. I was pretty happy with my position further down on the depth chart.
I've seen my share of high school prodigies over the past twenty years. Some of them do go on to greatness while others fade away. Some don't always run well in college but end up as late bloomers, appearing on the national scene several years after graduation. Others use their talent to achieve other ends and quietly "retire" to a fulfilling life of career or family and recreational running. One almost universal constant, however, is that nearly all of them encounter some rough patches along the way, usually during the first two years of college. College is a more difficult transition than most people realize, particularly for a high-profile athlete. Although it does sometimes happen (Bob Kennedy, Suzy Favor), I rarely see a high school prodigy set the world on fire during college. Not that these kids run badly, they just don't seem to reach the lofty heights predicted of them. As high school junior, Julia Stamps was expected to win numerous NCAA titles and progress to the upper tiers of U.S. distance running. After a solid but relatively "unspectacular" career at Stanford (i.e., no individual NCAA titles), she graduated and has yet to appear on the national running scene. Maybe she never will. Maybe she has found other things in life.
I sometimes wonder whether prodigies "peak" in high school, or simply get tired of the stress of training and racing. Sometimes other things get in the way: injuries, academics, relationships. Sometimes the fire just doesn't burn as strongly. Maybe the pressure and expectations take a toll. I always cringe when I see the media anoint some poor kid as "the next great XXX." Nothing is guaranteed, and aside from overtraining, there are few faster ways to drive a kid out of competition than expecting too much too soon. Some kids make the mistake of believing what they read and hear, and thus anything less than greatness is unacceptable. They get frustrated, the sport loses its appeal, and they move on to other things. How many times have I heard that some former high school star "never lived up to her potential." I'm not sure anyone is qualified to make that judgment.
Just for kicks, I took a look at historical results of the Footlocker (Kinney) Cross-Country Championships (http://footlockercc.com/history/flccc_nationals_results.htm#). The championship started in 1979, when I was a junior in high school, so a lot of the names are familiar. Some of them, through the years, are instantly recognizable. Deena Drossin. Cathy Schiro (O'Brien). Anne Marie Letko (Lauck). Todd Williams. Tim Hacker. Adam Goucher. Mark Coogan. Others had great fanfare at the time but I don't recall hearing much about them in college or beyond. Lynne Strauss. Corey Schubert. Mike Connelly. Curt Anschuetz. Laura Craven. For every Bob Kennedy there are two or three Erin Keoughs. I sometimes wonder where their lives took them, and whether running is still a part of it.
My own teammate enjoyed two very successful years in college before injuries and burn-out took their toll. She quit the track team prior to her senior year and shortly thereafter settled down to start a family. She continues to run a few miles per week for fun but has never been tempted to step back into the world of serious training and racing.
I do hope Alan Webb achieves all his goals and dreams. I hope he makes his mark on the U.S. running scene. But most of all, I hope that when he decides to exit the competitive stage - whenever that may be, and regardless of records set or accolades won - he can look back at his career with complete satisfaction and be able to say, "that was a heck of a lot of fun!"