Avoiding 4th Place Is 1st on Lukezic's Mind

Chris Lukezic finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the past two U.S. championships. Only the top three at the Olympic trials will go to Beijing.
Chris Lukezic finished fourth in the 1,500 meters at the past two U.S. championships. Only the top three at the Olympic trials will go to Beijing. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

EUGENE, Ore., July 1 -- The very first fourth-place finish was pretty cool, actually, given that Chris Lukezic didn't expect even to be competitive at the Olympic track and field trials in 2004.

But they got progressively worse after that.

The Georgetown graduate took fourth place in the 1,500 meters at the U.S. championships in 2006, keeping him off the World Cup team that competed in Athens. He did so again at the U.S. championships in 2007, preventing him from traveling to Osaka, Japan, for the world championships.

A fourth-place finish in this Sunday's race at the U.S. Olympic trials at Hayward Field would mean no Olympic Games in Beijing. Only the top three go. Running the trails at Rock Creek Park would be even lonelier than usual.

"I've learned a lot from those fourth places," Lukezic said Tuesday. "It stunk at the time, but it taught me a lot. . . . More than anything, I'm mentally ready. I've been ready for this for a long time."

Lukezic, 24, earned respect when he finished second to Alan Webb, who has been an occasional training partner, at the 2005 U.S. championships. His reputation grew when he claimed the U.S. indoor title in 2006. He set a trio of personal bests at European meets that season. He hired an agent, signed a professional contract and left Georgetown's athletic program early. But those fourth-place finishes, it seems, have taken their toll.

Lukezic, after all, sat in Reebok's athlete hospitality suite on the second floor of a restaurant Tuesday morning, watching television and finishing a bagel while the official USA Track and Field news conference to advance his event, which begins with Thursday's first round, got underway at a downtown hotel.

The sport's stars -- Webb, the American record holder in the mile; Bernard Lagat, the reigning world champion in the 1,500; and youngster Lopez Lomong, one of the "Lost Boys of Sudan" who lived for 10 years in a refugee camp after his family fled the Janjaweed militia -- fielded questions for an hour from several dozen journalists.

A native of Seattle who aspires to eventually open a wine bar-coffee shop-bookstore to allow others to fall in love with the kind of place he loves, Lukezic shrugged off the lack of attention.

"I'm really excited just to be here," he said. "I'm not anxious like I was last year. I'm not worried about the outcome. . . . I've run really fast times, and I think I've proven I can't be counted out."

Being counted in has been the problem. Lukezic ran with Webb and Lagat, stride for stride, for 1,300 meters at the U.S. championships last year. Around the final turn, he was in third, just behind Webb. As the trio came into the homestretch, Webb accelerated and passed Lagat. Lukezic tried to accelerate, too. But Leonel Manzano of the University of Texas blew past Lukezic over the last 80 meters.

"He was emotionally distraught after" the race, said his coach Juli Henner, a former Georgetown assistant who now is an assistant at George Mason.

Lukezic chided himself for overlooking Manzano. Then came some real trouble. Lukezic, who uses an inhaler to combat his asthmatic reaction to allergies, came down with a severe bout of bronchitis in July. He spent most of the summer in Europe, competing, coughing and running slowly. Despite two prescriptions of antibiotics, it took months to recover, a further setback that ruined the season.

"I felt like an actress," Henner said. "I kept telling him everything was going to be okay, when inside I was just devastated for him. . . . He's now back to being himself."

Wearing black sneakers with pink trim and lime green laces, not to mention a yellow shirt with black tigerlike stripes, Lukezic looks more like a West Coast free spirit than a buttoned-down Beltway type. But Henner said he has brought impeccable training habits to a local group that includes University of Pennsylvania graduate Sam Burley, who also will compete in the 1,500, and Nebraska graduate Anne Shadle, entered in the women's 1,500.

Lukezic said he does track workouts with Burley but takes his longer runs alone in Rock Creek Park, which he can reach in minutes from his home in Columbia Heights.

"I couldn't have asked for better training" this year, Lukezic said. "I've had no hiccups."

Of course, the 1,500 itself always brings plenty of those. Webb understands the drama and unexpected outcomes, especially in big races when runners get tense and make strategic errors. Months after breaking the American record in the mile last summer, Webb finished eighth in the 1,500 in Osaka. Lukezic, Webb said, was a legitimate threat to upset the expected finishing order.

"I know he's a very capable runner," Webb said. "He's extremely talented. We'll be out there sort of looking out for each other, too, because we're buddies."

Webb, a buddy? Yes.

An idol? No chance.

"It's a brutally strong field, but Chris does a really good job with that," Henner said. "He really respects athletes who have run faster than him, but there is no way he has ever feared them."

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