NEW YORK -- Going into the bell lap of the women's 1,500-meter run at the 2014 adidas Grand Prix in New York City, 17-year-old Alexa Efraimson ran on the shoulders of world championship medalists Jenny Simpson and Brenda Martinez, and coach Mike Hickey watched.
Just four years ago, Hickey watched Efraimson practice as an eighth-grader and knew the potential for greatness was there.
"I remember going up to myhigh school coach and I said, 'This girl is special,'" Hickey, a coach at Clark College who also works with runners at Camas (Wash.) High school, said. "I thought from the start, you never want to get too ahead of yourself, but I believed she had a legitimate shot of winning some state titles."
Efraimson's walls at home are lined with more than just state titles. She won a bronze medal at the 2013 World Youth Championships and dominated at the Nike Cross Nationals in December. In March, she was named the 2013-14 Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year. Her 4:07.05 in New York was the second-fastest 1,500-meter time ever by a high schooler.
Her time is just three seconds behind Mary Cain's American junior record of 4:04.62. Both were seen signing autographs and taking pictures with fans outside Icahn Stadium after the adidas Grand Prix, and the two are quickly popularizing running for the next generation.
One week before her race at Icahn, Efraimson ran a workout in which she repeated a 600-meter interval three times. She was clocked at 1:32, 1:34 and 1:33. Minutes later she recovered for three sets of 300-meter sprints in 41, 42 and 43 seconds, respectively. Hickey was shocked at the world-class speed on his hands.
"I think it takes time to figure out how much a body can take," Hickey said. "For the last four years, I've been figuring out how much work she can do and still be excited about the sport. At the same time, I need to challenge her with new workouts. She never ceases to amaze me."
Hickey first invited Efraimson to work out with the Camas team as an eighth-grader. She previously ran track and cross-country in middle school and on the club level.
"I actually did hurdles in sixth and seventh grade," Efraimson said. "I think I really got into running my freshman year, when I started running cross-country for school."
In the winter of her freshman year, Hickey and the team ran a workout circuit with stair climbs, calisthenics and core lifting exercises. He started pulling Efraimson from workouts when he noticed her accomplishing everything with ease.
"I could see that her genetic gifts are far beyond any I had seen in a female before," Hickey said. "If you haven't coached someone that's world-class, you quickly learn they just continue to adapt and improve."
Efraimson's parents, Chantel and Dave, were collegiate swimmers, and Chantel Efraimson continues to compete competitively in Ironman triathlons. They let Hickey take the reins on Efraimson's training.
"I told them that if they're ever wondering why I'm doing something, they can just come to me and talk to me about," Hickey said. "They said 'Coach, you're the expert. Do your thing.' They haven't wavered from that at all, and that can go a long way."
Managing such a talented athlete can be a daunting task for some coaches. Hickey shares his season plan for Efraimson with legendary Olympic distance running coach Joe Vigil.
World championship 800-meter bronze medalist Brenda Martinez is also advised by Vigil and could feel Efraimson's presence in her race in New York.
"She's a monster," Martinez said. "She's so young and right there. She's my competitor, too, and she's coming up real quick."
The next generation
Based 30 minutes away from Camas in Portland, Oregon, Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar is always willing to share his advice with Hickey. Salazar has already seen success, coaching Cain to an appearance in the 1,500-meter final at the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow.
"I think Mary Cain has done a great job of being able to bring up distance running for high school girls and being able to prove that we are still able to compete against the best," Efraimson said. "As a generation and group, we can show just how strong we're going to become."
Cain wanted to race against Efraimson, but opted for the 800-meter run in New York. The two could go head-to-head in the 1,500-meter run at Sacramento at the U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
"I have a lot of respect for her," Cain said. "The main reason I've done what I've done is to inspire other kids. My attitude is that if I'm not the one who makes a change in the sport, I at least want to inspire the kid who does it. If that's her, good for her."
Hickey believes the "Cain-sanity" that gripped track in 2013 helped alleviate the pressure and hype around Efraimson.
"I think it's the perfect storm. I think Mary got a lot more media hype," Hickey said. "I think it's good for Alexa because she's just ridden along and done her thing. The attention will come with time. She doesn't seek it and I think that's healthy for a young lady, and let things come to them."
Efraimson may soon face a dilemma similar to the one Cain confronted when deciding to forgo her NCAA eligibility and sign with a shoe sponsor, and it seems the recruitment has already started. Efraimson has already been featured in videos decked out in gear provided by adidas, Nike and Brooks.
"When I got to hang out with Katie Mackey of Brooks, that was a super-fun day," Efraimson said. "It really just opens up options for the future."
The options are there, but there is no rush to make the call one way or the other.
"Alexa is taking her time to make this decision. She wants to race at a level where she can grow as a competitor and person," Hickey said. "The NCAA model is great for most people and the professional model is for the few who can function in that environment. She will be attending college with either decision."
A life outside running
There's more to life for Efraimson than just running in circles, though. Track and field has taken her all over the globe, including Donetsk, Ukraine, for the IAAF World Youth Games last summer.
"I like making friends across the country and being able to go and see them and cheer them on," Efraimson said.
Fans have asked Efraimson to the prom on Twitter and Instagram, but she's learned how to keep the perfect balance to focus on her studies and running.
"I'm usually logged out of my Twitter most of the time, so I'm not on that too much," Efraimson said. "Running is for the races, and that's when you really need to be focused. Social media can happen after that."
Efraimson also enjoys spending time in the kitchen preparing healthy treats for her friends.
"Sometimes the desserts don't turn out very good, but I try my best," Efraimson said. "I really focus on the sugar-free things. There's these peanut butter cookies that I really like to make and I've found to also be healthy."
The final lap
Hickey compares Efraimson's finishing speed to that of 2011 world championship gold medalist Jenny Simpson, and following the career path of someone who made two Olympic teams and won seven national titles is not a bad idea.
Efraimson has "a lot of promise and a lot of good years ahead of her," Simpson said. "I really hope she continues to have fun with the sport. I've been fortunate to experience the joy in what she's doing."
It is likely that Efraimson and Simpson could toe the line against each other at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, when Simpson will be 29 years old and Efraimson will be 19.
"Two years from now, in track and field and middle distances, that could be a career or the peak," Simpson said. "You want 10 years in this career. You want to be able to be a Deena Kastor, who's been able to run for many years at such a high level. She was one of my inspirations. Every year is precious."
Already sounding like a seasoned veteran, Efraimson's advice for young girls echoes Simpson's.
"Just soak in the moment," Efraimson said. "Every big meet that you're able to get to is a great opportunity to have an awesome race. Live in the moment."