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‘I was surprised’: First-year pro runner Drew Hunter joins elite company in 1,500

Drew Hunter, center, running the 1,500-meters at the USATF Distance Classic in Los Angeles in May. (Courtesy of USATF)

This was hardly the life Drew Hunter envisioned for himself when he was lighting the track world on fire as a high school phenom and sub-four-minute-miler at Loudoun Valley High. As he sat in his parents’ home in Purcellville, Va. in early June watching the NCAA outdoor track and field championships on television, Hunter began to ask himself, “What if…”

What if he decided to run for Oregon instead of turning pro right out of high school? What if that was him in the NCAA finals, using his stellar kick to claim the 1,500-meter title as a freshman?

These were thoughts that have occasionally run through Hunter’s mind since signing a 10-year pro contract with Adidas last July, a decision that the five-time All-Met weighed for several months.

“I don’t think regret is the right word, but it’s almost like being injured. You watch your competitors, you see yourself right there,” Hunter said recently in a phone interview. “When I watch NCAAs, I get a gut-wrenching feeling that I’ll never get to experience running for a university, just knowing I could be one of the best [collegiate] runners right now.”

Loudoun Valley’s Drew Hunter turns pro as he watches Olympic trials

It was not an easy transition for the 19-year-old to go from being the top high school runner with limited competition to struggling to even podium on the pro circuit. But with each month, Hunter has been encouraged by his progress, slowly adapting to the often-lonely life of a teenage professional runner.

On Sunday in Padova, Italy, Hunter ran a personal best 3:36.77 to finish in third place in the 1,500-meter final, beating two-time Olympic medalist Nick Willis, who finished fourth. The feat, first reported by FloTrack, puts Hunter in rare and elite company as he became just the third U.S.-born male to break 3:37 as a teenager.

The other two runners in that club are Jim Ryun, the first high school athlete to run a mile in less than four minutes, and Rio Olympic gold medalist Matthew Centrowitz.

Turning pro may have been the right choice for Hunter, after all.

“I was surprised,” Hunter said. “I knew 3:36 was fast and obviously really good for my age. …It shows I’m off to a good start…and it’s a good club to be in for sure. It’s exciting to know I’m on the right path.”

For Hunter’s parents, Joan and Marc, watching their son navigate life as a professional athlete has been both thrilling and nerve-racking.

Hunter spent the past year living with his parents, working out in the familiar confines of his alma mater of Loudoun Valley and meeting up with pro runner and George Mason assistant track coach, Cory Leslie, in Fairfax.

His private coach, Tom Schwartz, prescribes daily workouts for Hunter. But Schwartz, who also coaches middle school phenom Grace Ping, lives in Idaho. Hunter decides which meets to race and handles travel and housing logistics on his own with the help from his parents and agent, Ray Flynn.

Hunter’s recent trip to Europe, which will wrap up in Belgium this weekend, is the first time he’s left the United States and Joan laughs that sometimes he’s not even old enough to rent his own car. Wherever Hunter travels, he’s typically the youngest one in the group, the little brother tagging along with the older, seasoned veterans.

“I still sort of have to pinch myself,” said Joan, who spent a few weeks with her son in Europe. “It just sort of amazes me. He’s just my little son, Drew Hunter. It just doesn’t seem like reality sometimes. Watching him race, sometimes as his mom, I ask, ‘Did we do the right thing? Is it too much?’ [Sunday] really sort of confirmed that he belongs.”

When Hunter returns, he plans to run the Sir Walter Miler in Raleigh, N.C. to close the season before exploring the possibility of moving to Boulder, Colo., where he will have the chance to work out and live with other professional runners.

It’s a change of scenery that Hunter and his parents believe would be beneficial.

“Just being alone, not having a team or group, people to travel with, that’s hard,” Hunter said. “The whole lifestyle as a professional is hard.”

But there have been moments that shadow any doubts or regrets that have crept into his mind about his decision to turn pro.

As Hunter lined up to race in the Wanamaker Mile at the Millrose Games in February, it dawned on him that he was standing next to his heroes not as a fan, or a high school upstart, but as a peer. He would go on to the finish seventh overall, in front of runners like Leslie and recent U.S. national champion Robby Andrews.

“I haven’t thought about the [NCAAs] since it happened,” Hunter said. “I’m really enjoying my life right now. I enjoy that I ran 3:36 and I know I’m getting to the level I want to be.”