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Sunday, July 18, 2004
Updated: July 19, 10:34 PM ET
Webb poised to break another 36-year record

By Mark Kreidler
Special to ESPN.com

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- At the far end of an Olympic trials that fell heavy on the syringe-related news and mostly light on the actual sport, you might be hard-pressed to come to the conclusion that you've just witnessed the future of track and field in America.

So let's go with what we know: Alan Webb is the real deal, now and quite likely for years to come.

Listen, it ain't as easy as it sounds.

Alan Webb
Alan Webb, who won the 1,500 meters going away Sunday, may be a force to reckon with Athens.

Into a U.S. Olympic track and field trials desperately seeking a moment to remember, Webb arrived Sunday almost as if by divine appointment. He delivered one of the most audacious moves in the recent history of the men's 1,500-meter run, dead-sprinting away from the pack with a full 700 meters still left to cover, electrifying the stunned crowd at Sacramento State University, essentially risking his Olympic spot on the notions that (1) he'd have enough in the tank to go strong to the finish despite such an exertion and (2) the other guys wouldn't.

And it didn't merely work; it became the image of the trials. Webb's time of 3 minutes, 36.13 seconds obliterated the field in what was expected to be a tense and competitive 1,500. He established himself as the pre-eminent American at that distance.

He will go to Athens with at least a puncher's chance in an event in which the United States hasn't been on the map for any protracted period of time in decades. He's 21. He's clean. He's got the world talking.

If this isn't the future of track in America, more's the pity.

There was no escaping the news at these trials. In stark contrast to the national swim championships in Long Beach, Calif., which looked like one overlong celebration of the sport and those who participate in it, the track trials were pockmarked throughout their 10-day run by stories old and new related to steroids, to positive tests, to the BALCO scandal.

The event might ultimately be remembered as much for the openly accused of misdeeds (Tim Montgomery, Chryste Gaines, Michelle Collins, et al) to the tainted by implication (Marion Jones), as anything else. When Jones ran fifth in the 100 meters and scratched her 200 semifinal, it felt like doors were closing all over the place in the world of track.

Webb can't fix that; in fact, he pretty much runs away from any conversation about drug use in the sport, since, by his declaration, he has virtually nothing in common with it. But to watch Webb run is to understand that it's still possible for the United States to make noise in the sport for all the right reasons.

Sunday's 1,500 was, if not a classic, then at least an instant memory. Two days earlier, Webb ran a semifinal against Sacramento-area product Michael Stember in which Stember chased him down the stretch, passed him just at the finish and later declared, "It's my track."

The stage appeared to be set for a nice little rivalry run on Sunday, even if, as many believe, Webb eased up near the end of that semifinal and allowed Stember to have his moment. Instead, Webb used the national stage to deliver an international message.

If Webb's name sounds familiar, it's because he was a high-school sensation. He's the kid who took down Jim Ryun's high-school record in the mile, a record that had stood for 36 years. Webb ran the mile in 3:53.43 as a senior in high school. He was going to take over the planet.

And then he disappeared, or so it seemed. Webb enrolled at the University of Michigan, ran for the track team, injured an Achilles and just dropped out of sight. Two years went by without much good to report, and at some point, people figured the kid hadn't been able to live up to his superstar billing.

In truth, Webb was slowly reconstructing his game, a process he recently likened to Tiger Woods' remaking of his swing after his early-career victory at The Masters. It took time, and it wasn't always pretty, yet Webb dealt with the shifting public perception. But he never stopped running -- or planning.

That was your story on Sunday, when what appeared to be an emotional decision to run away from the pack so early in the race -- for most 1,500 runners, it'd be a suicidal strategy -- had in fact been hatched between Webb and his coach the day before.

"If somebody was going to come with me (on the breakaway), they were gonna be hurtin' the way I was hurtin'," Webb explained.

It was the pure-guts moment of the meet. When racers speak of "hard" moves, they mean a runner going strongly to the front in an effort to kill off the stragglers. Webb's runner-up, Charlie Gruber, who finished 2½ seconds behind the winner, called what transpired Sunday "one of the hardest runners' moves I've ever seen in a race." It buried the field and crushed Stember, the 2000 Olympian, who tried to go out with Webb and had nothing left.

Which is to say: It worked. With a berth in Athens on the line. From a kid who at 21 is already old enough to have been written off as an athlete. With another 36-year record to break at the Games -- this time the U.S. medal drought since Ryun won silver in 1968. Maybe the future is now.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com