No rushing this runner's greatness

This story appeared in the Central Florida edition of the October ESPN RISE Magazine.

On the surface, Brian Atkinson doesn't seem like much fun.

The Melbourne (Melbourne, Fla.) harrier never misses a run. He's in bed early every night. It doesn't matter if there's a movie or a dance: Without fail, the lights go out nine hours before he needs to get up. Harvard once called at 9:45 p.m.; Atkinson stayed in bed.

He nags his teammates about germs -- Wash your hands! Don't touch your face! -- so much that they refer to him as the virus police. Never content with a run, he asks -- no, begs -- his coach for more miles.

"What separates Brian from so many kids is he absolutely does all of the little things," says Melbourne coach T.J. Woodbury. "He is almost fanatical about staying healthy."

Sounds like kind of a square, right? Atkinson is perfectly content with you thinking that. He's glad you know that he gets his nine hours every night. That he ran 80-90 miles every week this past summer. That he never misses a workout. That this year, his senior season, is the culmination of more than five years of preparation and planning with his father and his coach.

Because the more you think of him as an efficient running machine -- the more certain you are that he's outworked everyone in the field -- the more convinced you become that he's going to beat you. And chances are, he will.

Atkinson is, after all, the state's top distance runner. He is the two-time defending Class 4A state cross country champion and the three-time defending track champ in the 3,200.

The truth is, Atkinson isn't a machine. He likes chilling with his friends, playing Ping-Pong, bodyboarding and playing video games. He's a smart kid with a sharp wit, the type who's quiet up until the moment he delivers the zinger you never saw coming.

But mostly, he loves running. And specifically, winning races. That's why he doesn't mind the ribbing over the early bedtime or the joshing he gets when he's making sure his teammates stay healthy. Behind those jokes lies a deep respect for what Atkinson is able to do, and an abiding appreciation for the team leader he has become. Sacrifice is the name of the game.

"It's really different than any other sport," Atkinson says. "It's the only sport where, when you're actually in the real 'game,' it kind of sucks. It's not fun to run a race, but the satisfaction and reward afterwards is way more to me than other sports."

So say what you will. Atkinson is just unusually driven for a high school kid -- heck, for anyone.

"He loves it," says Woodbury. "He loves the structure, he loves the discipline, he likes being pushed and likes being competitive. He hates to lose as much as he loves to win, and he demands that he gives the best effort of himself. He wants to know nobody has done as much work as he has."

The work has been taking place since seventh grade. Atkinson first took up running to get in shape for soccer. His father, a doctor with a keen interest in exercise physiology, helped create workouts that were initially designed to maximize speed.

Until eighth grade, Atkinson planned on continuing his soccer career. But his older sister, Alyse, ran cross country, and Atkinson got a chance to meet his future coach and see the camaraderie on the team. He's been solely a runner ever since.

As a freshman, Atkinson placed fourth at the state cross country meet and followed it up with a state title in the 3,200 during spring track. It was an unbelievable finish for a ninth-grader, as distance events are normally dominated by upperclassmen on the boys' side. Woodbury points out that there was a bit more to it.

"It seemed like such a shocker, but really he was a third-year runner," the coach explains. "He's been working seriously since his seventh-grade year."

The following fall, Atkinson led Melbourne to a surprise team cross country title. And with teammates Erik Fagan, James Post, Derek Bastien and Dillon McGee all finishing in the top 35, Melbourne looked poised to dominate for years.

"That's the most excited I've been," Atkinson says. "The ride home was just like a euphoria, being able to celebrate with the whole team."

But last fall brought another surprise: Despite placing four harriers among the top 25, including Atkinson at the top, the team failed to repeat. Melbourne rebounded by finishing first among Florida teams at the Nike Cross Nationals Southeast Regional a week later, but not all of the state's top squads were represented.

In addition to reclaiming the team crown, Atkinson is hoping to make it three consecutive individual titles this fall. He will likely put off any college decision until the end of the season. With a 4.0 GPA and strong standardized test scores -- not to mention his prodigious running ability -- Atkinson has plenty of options.

"I think he'll be a great college distance runner," says Holy Trinity coach Doug Butler, one of the state's most respected running gurus. "Brian is a strong kid -- really, really strong. I think he has a higher pain threshold than your average runner. He can just make you hurt, and when the hurt starts setting in, he can just push through."

While the transition from high school to college is often difficult for distance runners, Woodbury and Butler see Atkinson having the potential to make an immediate impact at the next level, probably in the 10K. This they attribute as much to his ability to deal with setbacks as to his phenomenal work ethic.

"When he does get beat, rare as it is, he always takes it as a learning experience," Woodbury says. "Then it's a switch where he [decides] that's not happening again."

Not that Atkinson is going to lose any sleep over a loss. Or anything else.

Lucas O'Neill writes about high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.