He had done just about everything the right way all year, until he reached Olympic competition Friday night. Alan Webb had run his best-ever time in the mile this year. He'd run his best-ever time in the 1,500 meters this year, his best-ever time in the 800 meters this year, his best-ever time in the 5,000 meters this year. He's got the fastest mile in the world this year. He essentially sprinted the last lap of the 1,500 at the U.S. trials in California a month ago to spectacularly bolt into the Olympics.
If he wasn't the favorite to win the 1,500, he was one of the favorites, a lock at the least to be in the final and have a shot at winning a medal. Except it'll never get to that because Webb ran one incredibly bad race at the worst time imaginable. "Stupid" was the word he used, and emphatically at that, to describe his approach to the first round of the 1,500 at Athens Olympic Stadium. For some reason he couldn't even explain, he got outside, wasted a whole lot of energy covering too much real estate, then couldn't get back inside without stepping on another runner, without being jostled, without losing his rhythm and his momentum. "I was trying to stay out of trouble," he said of moving early to the outside, "but I just got myself into more trouble. Stupid."
Yes, it surely was. "Before I knew it," he said, "I was dead last."
Actually, finishing dead last might have made him feel better than where he did finish. They say fourth place is the cruelest of all, and perhaps that's true. But 25th place, when 24 runners qualify, has to be pretty damn painful, too.
I don't follow a lot of local track and field, but I've watched for Alan Webb since he was a phenom at South Lakes High in Reston. I followed, like a lot of folks did in the Washington area, as Webb set a national sophomore record for the mile. I followed as he set the national prep record for the indoor mile, as he broke four minutes, as he shot to the top of the Big Ten during outdoor season his freshman year at Michigan, as he overcame an Achilles' injury and made it back to his old form, and then some.
Webb has been aiming for this week probably since he stopped swimming and started running and realized there was something special inside him. So it was stunning to watch him finish so far back in the pack Friday night, behind people we all figured he'd own here. It's virtually unthinkable that his flawed approach to what should have been an uneventful warmup resulted in such an athletic catastrophe.
It's so hard to do, get to the Olympics. It's so difficult to hit a stride and stay healthy and have it all happen leading right up to the Olympics. A lot of kids would have been permanently unraveled by two difficult seasons. A lot of kids, once they're thrown off the phenom track, never get back on the rails, and they just fade away. But Webb has been so much better than that, so much tougher mentally. "Stupid" just wasn't what we'd come to expect from him, especially not the way he had approached the big competitions and the biggest races.
As he stood talking to reporters immediately after his race, Webb still had some hope left. There was another heat left, and Webb still had a chance to qualify. He answered every question in a way most of us never could. Some of us fly into a club-throwing fit for missing a three-foot putt in a no-stakes game of golf with a best friend. Webb knew he might have just waved bye-bye to a chance at an Olympic medal at 21 years old, and he stood there composed, explaining what had happened to the best of his knowledge. And through the disappointment, he still had hope. "We'll see what happens," he said, knowing his error wasn't yet fatal.
Webb left, one would presume to watch the third and final heat of 14 competitors. And when that heat was over, so was his hope for contending for a medal. And there's just no way that should have happened, getting all tangled up and being shoved out of the Olympics. The guy he had the heaviest contact with, Bernard Legat of Kenya, recovered and somehow ran with one shoe on and one shoe off to qualify. But there was Webb, way back in the pack to the shock of those watching, those from the Washington area, those from elsewhere in America and from Europe and Africa and wherever they'd heard of Webb's excellent 2004 season. "What in the world happened to your Webb?" an Aussie commentator asked a Washington sportswriter.
You come to the Olympics as a sportswriter and you're not supposed to root, but you do anyway, usually silently and with no facial expression. You root for kids you've seen or known of since high school to, at the very least, be healthy and run a good technical race and reach the finals, because you've come to meet the mother and father and know their dreams and the kid's dreams. And you know, when you move on to the next story, they don't move so quickly. Webb, even though he won't want to, will replay what went wrong and see in his mind's eye what he should have done, and he will live with those very different images for years, but if he's lucky only four more years.