With a staggering suddenness, halfway through the 1,500 final on the final day of the U.S. Olympic trials Sunday, Alan Webb surged into a sprint that left behind exactly what he had hoped for: a pack of runners, fighting panic.
As the crowd of 24,323 at Alex G. Spanos Sports Complex murmured, Webb put about 25 meters between himself and the field with a sprinter's burst, spreading awe through the stadium and leaving those behind him trying to talk themselves out of their alarm.
"I wanted it to be sort of a 'wow' effect," Webb said. "I wanted them to sort of think about it for a couple of seconds. That's all I needed. With 300 meters to go, I knew I had broken them."
In a meet that had been stamped by unexpected developments -- most related to drug test positives -- Webb's move with 800 meters remaining might go down as the most startling and memorable. On a day of stirring finals, which featured Allyson Felix's come-from-behind victory in the women's 200 in 22.28 seconds and Shawn Crawford's successful dash in the men's 200 in 19.99 seconds, Webb's race provided the day's most jaw-dropping moment.
Webb not only finished first in 3 minutes 36.13 seconds, he completed a season-long rebound from the sport's depths and showed he can play the mental games the 1,500 demands. Faster than his competitors could wonder what happened, Webb put what seemed like miles between himself and the previous two seasons, which had been utter disappointments for the kid who came out of South Lakes High in 2001 expected to single-handedly rejuvenate the American mile.
"It's especially sweet, because people have questioned the last couple of years the road he has taken to get here," Webb's coach, Scott Raczko, said. "It's validated that he did make the right decisions for himself."
Suddenly, he looks ready to take on the challenge again, entering the Aug. 13-29 Summer Games with a streak of successes behind him and times that give him the hope of contending for an Olympic medal 33 years after a U.S. miler -- Marty Liquori -- was last ranked No. 1 in the 1,500.
Even about an hour after the race, Charlie Gruber, who finished second in 3:38.45, and third-place finisher Rob Myers (3:38.93) still looked perplexed at what they had just been through.
"I was a little surprised at how strong and decisive the move was," said Gruber. "I've never really had anyone move on me like that."
Said Myers, "He really did drop the hammer."
The move came by design, Scott Raczko said. The two had learned from the nearly annual struggles of former miler Steve Holman of Arlington, who usually came into the U.S. championships a favorite and often left the meets with crushing disappointment, failing to win the battle of strategy the event demands.
"If the pace does go slow, it allows everybody to be in the race," Raczko said. "I don't want to take the chance in a 100-meter sprint, even though he's got great speed."
Raczko said Webb cut short his warmup and prepared in the shade to keep himself as cool as possible. He also was relaxed: Webb stopped to sign a few autographs just minutes before his race. When he finished, he let out a scream.
Webb endured an injury that ruined his freshman season at Michigan, then turned pro and returned to Reston to train with Raczko. Then, he ran into more problems. He battled appendicitis and bronchitis during another slow season last year, which saw him finish 10th at the prestigious Prefontaine Classic, running five seconds slower than he had in high school.
"Anybody who has followed my relatively brief career knows the last couple of years haven't exactly been stellar," Webb said. But "I persevered, kept on running. To come to the U.S. championships, the Olympic trials, and run like I did today, it just erases all that."
Webb, though, clearly has learned from his rise and fall, and he hasn't forsaken caution.
"It made me realize there's always a tomorrow," he said. "Unless I die in my sleep tonight."