CHARLOTTESVILLE — Robby Andrews’s dark nest of unkempt hair bobs as he glides around the track. He’s not worried about split times or a stopwatch or anything really. He’s just trying to reach the finish as quickly as possible.
“When the lights come on, it’s just no different than when we’re out here running around an empty high school track,” his coach, Jason Vigilante, said during a recent training session. “That’s a very special quality.”
The lights are about to come on for the 21-year old Andrews, a two-time NCAA champion middle distance runner who left the University of Virginia track program last fall to pursue a professional track career. He’ll see his stiffest competition to date Saturday at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York, where he’ll face a talented international field in a final tuneup before the U.S. Olympics team trials later this month.
Andrews will race in an 800-meter field that features Kenyan David Rudisha, the current world record-holder, who will be making his U.S. debut and has posted four of the 10 fastest times ever.
“It’ll be a good learning experience,” Andrews said. “To a certain extent, you know they’ll be running at a certain level. For me, any experience I can get with international runners is going to help, even if they’re 10 seconds ahead of me.”
The full-day event also will feature the return of sprinter Tyson Gay, the U.S. record holder in the 100, who will be running his first race since hip surgery last July. Also on tap is a women’s 100-meter field that features Americans Carmelita Jeter and Allyson Felix, both trying to top Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the reigning Olympic gold medalist.
The men’s 800 race Saturday represents a big stepping-stone for Andrews. He was an elite runner for two seasons at Virginia. He won the NCAA 800 indoor crown as a freshman and the outdoor title as a sophomore. But a coaching change last fall prompted Andrews to consider his collegiate future.
Vigilante left Virginia to spend more time with his family and to focus on individual training. Andrews didn’t mesh well with Vigilante’s replacement, Bryan Fetzer, and decided to leave school to focus on Olympic preparations.
“He wants to be more than an ACC champion,” Vigilante said. “He wants to be an Olympian.”
Andrews continued his studies at Virginia but has built the rest of his schedule around running. He lives with a friend and while he waits for sponsors to come along, his parents and agent have helped fund his dream.
“I have a lot of IOUs,” Andrews said with a laugh.
The jump to the pro ranks has meant he’s surrounded by a lot more talent when he steps to a starting line. On Saturday, in addition to Rudisha, Andrews will face Kenya’s Alfred Kirwa Yego, the bronze medalist at the 2008 Summer Games; Sudan’s Abubaker Kaki Khamis, the two-time world indoor champion; and fellow American Michael Rutt, who edged Andrews last month at the Duke Twilight.
Andrews isn’t unnerved by the field. Both his coach and training partner describe the young runner as a cool customer.
“I can be a little high-strung sometimes,” said Alan Webb, the American record-holder in the mile who trains with Andrews in Charlottesville, “so kind of just hanging out with him, you can’t help but mellow out. ‘Everything will work out. Everything will be good.’ He just has a great effect on the people around him.”
Andrews likely will run in both the 800 and the 1,500 at the U.S. trials. The 800 is his stronger race, but he shed nearly six seconds off his personal best in the 1,500 at the Occidental High Performance meet last month and could be an outside candidate to make the U.S. team in that event, as well.
For now, Andrews isn’t thinking too much about a stopwatch. He says the more he worries about time during a race, the worse he performs. He’s more concerned about the runners around him, knowing that a top-three finish in the U.S. trials will punch his ticket to London regardless of time.
“In a race, a lot of people want to know your time,” Andrews said. “To me, it’s so much more important, what place did you get? It’s a race. If you run fast but finish in 10th, you’re not being competitive.
“So when we’re training and stuff, it’s good to know your pace and whatnot, but at a certain point, you realize in a race, you’re not going to be checking your watch every 200 meters. You have to run off feeling.”