Putting on the Ritz

After dominating at Rockford (Rockford, Mich.), Dathan Ritzenhein has appeared in two Olympic Games. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire

Fans following the 2000 Foot Locker Finals, both at Walt Disney World's Oak Trail Golf Course and from online and afar, were giddy with expectation.

It was to be the battle of the "Big Three" prep distance running legends and future Olympians Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb and Ryan Hall, athletes who were the crest of the wave of the revival in the sport.

"Ritz" was the defending national champ, Webb had set a course record at Foot Locker South and would months later destroy the prep mile record, and Hall would also scare the four-minute mile barrier while putting up an impressive list of credentials.

Ritz, a senior from Rockford (Rockford, Mich.), coached by Brad Prins, was the favorite and fans were expecting epic performances, wanting Ritz's course record from 1999 to go down.

But it was a sweltering day, temps approaching 80 degrees, and a surprisingly modest 4:47 first mile had left fans wondering if Ritz -- whose running feats had wowed the prep distance world since his sophomore year -- would have what it took to repeat and establish his legend in the annuls of the sport.

The answer was not long in coming. He smoked a 4:33 second mile that left the field red-faced and gasping en route to a 20-second win in 14:35 for the 5K distance, with Webb in second-place and Hall finishing third. His thoughts during the final stretch, voiced after recovering from a collapse at the finish that was common with his best efforts: "God, this hurts!"

But that ability to endure pain is what endeared Ritz to the sport's blue-collar fans and still does -- and it's part of what makes him the DyeStat/ESPN RISE Cross-Country Boys Athlete of the Decade.

Although Ritz's first national cross country title came in 1999, his second was the best such performance of the 2000s -- with the margin he had over two of the decade's other legends, Webb and Hall -- and it capped arguably the best season, which was judged above and beyond the careers of any others.

Ritz had a superb campaign that year leading up to the Foot Locker Finals, full of sub-15:00 clockings. At the Portage Invite, he set a course record 14:43 in the snow and cold. At the Michigan Division I state meet, he set a course record of 14:10.40 and won by 55 seconds. He's the only runner ever to break even 14:50 on the course. He also set another still-standing mark of 14:35 at Foot Locker Midwest.

It was few months after the fall prep season, though, where Ritz had another performance that cemented this honor for him.

At the World Cross Country Championships in Belgium, an event almost always dominated by East African nations like Kenya and Ethiopia, Ritz ground through the mud and rain for a third-place finish in the Junior race that simply blew away followers of the sport, world-wide.

Ritz was beaten only by runner-up Duncan Lebo of Kenya and future world-record holder and multiple Olympic and World Champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia. He was the first American to medal since 1981 and no others have done so since.

After that, Ritz would go on to become an NCAA champion and multiple All-American at the University of Colorado and make the 2004 U.S. Olympic team at 10,000 meters. In 2008, he made the Olympic Marathon team and finished 10th in Beijing.

In 2009, after a coaching change -- he's now coached by Alberto Salazar and resides in Portland, Ore. -- he was better than ever, taking sixth in the World Championships at 10k, setting an American Record for 5,000 meters at Zurich (12:56.27) and taking third in the World Championships Half Marathon.

The image of him gaining ground on Zurich 5,000-meter winner Bekele in the final laps reminded fans that eight years after finishing third to the all-time great at the World Junior Cross Country meet, he's still closing in on the best on the planet.