'Right now, someone else is getting better'

When you distill to its essence what it takes -- mentally and physiologically -- to be a world-class athlete, what remains, if you ask me, is fear. Not fear in the traditional sense of the word. More like a wariness. A check over the shoulder to see if anyone is gaining.

Sandburg (Orland Park, Ill.) sophomore Lukas Verzbicas, honored in conjunction with ESPN RISE earlier this week as the 2009-10 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, has what he calls "a bad habit" of looking over his shoulder during races. Fittingly, it is Verzbicas's insatiable need to never be outworked by the next guy, to never get reeled in by the competitors chasing him, that ultimately makes him who he is as an athlete.

And who is Verzbicas (pronounced Vurz-BIC-iss)? He's a guy who won a state, national and world championship, all at the age of 16 and each during the 2009 calendar year. He's also a kid who has an opportunity to become the most decorated and dominant male high school distance runner of all time.

More to the point, Verzbicas is genuine and forthright enough to acknowledge, without agenda or affectation, how promising his chances are to make that dream a reality. Yet it is also Verzbicas who reminds us, earnestly and continuously, how vast a stretch of acreage he must traverse—literal and figurative—to attain what at the moment seems almost preordained.

"Right now, somebody else is getting better," he said Thursday night at a dinner celebrating his announcement as the 213th national winner in the 25-year history of the Gatorade Player of the Year Award, putting him in the company of national Gatorade award alumni like Peyton Manning, LeBron James, Candace Parker, Joe Mauer and Allyson Felix. "I'm eating dinner and celebrating and somebody else is out there working out. I missed a workout today. That's what I'm thinking about right now."

Fear? Not quite. But most assuredly wariness. Lukas Verzbicas knows guys are gunning for him. Coming for his title. Challenging his talent. Coveting his hardware. And no threshold of effort, exhaustion and agony exists that he isn't prepared to cross to keep them at bay.

Yeah, he missed a workout this week. Of course, he doesn't even consider giving himself some latitude even though he's nursing a stress fracture in the first metatarsal of his left foot, which has relegated him to a stationary bike for the past three weeks. He claims he's going to heal and recondition in time for the Nike Indoor Nationals meet in March, but that seems unlikely. Then again, this is Lukas Verzbicas we're talking about.

And be advised: Three weeks of being limited to pounding away on the bike is killing this kid. He's accustomed to 25,000 yards of swimming, 100 kilometers of biking and 50 miles of roadwork every week. When he talks about the training limitations that his fracture demands, he looks a bit like he wants to crawl out of his own skin. And for good reason. He's stuck on a bike while somebody else is getting better.

Verzbicas is deeply reflective, refreshingly direct and hyper-focused. Like Hubble Telescope focused. He is impossibly intense. What other teenage kid (Verzbicas turned 17 on January 6), could browbeat his orthopedic doctor into re-examining his foot a week before the M.D. himself wishes to? But that's exactly what will happen next week.

To come to know Lukas Verzbicas is to unravel rich layers of likeable traits. Because of his stone-faced pre-race concentration and his openness about his ultimate pursuit of Olympic gold, he's been tagged in the passionate distance running message board community as aloof and cocky. He is neither. And it may come as a surprise to some to learn that what is arguably his most endearing quality is his devotion to team dynamics. Whether he's inspiring, encouraging or instructing his high school or triathlon club teammates, he does so with a commitment one wouldn't think possible for someone who possesses his talent and timetable for personal success. Particularly since he's just beginning his second semester at Sandburg, having transferred from Lincoln-Way Central High (New Lenox, Ill.) after his parents moved house this summer.

"The first thing he said to me when he stepped down from the first-place podium at the state meet was, 'Coach, I don't want to be up there alone next year,'" said Sandburg High coach, John O'Malley. "Even in this powerful moment of personal glory, he was thinking about team and how we can get better as a group next year. His belief in cross country's team dynamic is very real and he expends tremendous energy on it."

On Thursday, Lukas became the first sophomore to win the National Gatorade Player of the Year Award among the 124 male recipients since 1985. If he stays healthy, he's got a chance to become the only other three-time Gatorade national winner in a sport beside Californian Marion Jones. If he ever manages to sandwich an outdoor track season into his triathlon training schedule (Verzbicas is a world-class triathlete and duathlete at the junior level), he could become the award's first ever four-time winner. Or five-time winner. Lest any confusion remain: He is that gifted.

Perhaps Gatorade's inaugural National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year Chris Derrick (Neuqua Valley High, Naperville IL), who took home the trophy in 2007-08 and recently captured bronze at the 2009 NCAA Division I Men's Cross Country Championships, put it best. When informing Derrick by text about the torch being passed to Verzbicas, I noted that two of the first three national Runner of the Year recipients have hailed from Illinois. Derrick replied: And if everything goes as expected, it'll be four of the first five.

True enough. Because no matter how much better everyone else gets, odds are Verzbicas will still have to look over his shoulder to even catch a glimpse of them.