Elijah Greer is one of the greatest high school half-milers of all time. But to many of his teammates, he's just a ninja on a trampoline.
During the fall season of his freshman year at Lake Oswego (Ore.), Greer's family hosted a pasta party, a tradition for many cross country teams. The new guy, Greer came across as quiet and shy. That image quickly changed when he snuck away from his team, changed into a ninja outfit and started hopping around on a giant trampoline in his backyard.
"It was so out of character for him to do that," says Lake Oswego head cross country and track coach Eric Lider. "He was the quiet, hard-working guy we didn't know anything about. Ever since, we've looked to him as a fun guy who we can laugh with."
Whether on a trampoline or on the track, in ninja attire or donning the Lake Oswego red and blue, Greer has elevated the school's track program like no one else. The senior University of Oregon recruit entered this season as the most decorated
800-meter runner in the nation. As a junior, Greer won the USATF Junior National Championship in the half-mile event, breaking the national junior class record in a time of 1:47.68. The mark is the fourth-fastest high school 800 time ever.
Greer's willingness to compete and train accentuates his brilliant natural ability. He thinks not in days but in workout schedules, not in seasons on the calendar but in events on the schedule. He rattles off his five favorite racing spikes before he can name his five favorite bands.
"He's very coachable," says Lake Oswego assistant coach Bob Williams. "He absolutely loves to compete. Very seldom do you see an athlete with the talent he has."
The results of this talent, coupled with tireless training and an unceasing competitive drive, have been astounding. After winning the Class 6A state championship in the 1,500 as a sophomore, Greer focused more closely on the 800. He
coasted to a win in the event as a junior, with his 1:50.60 eclipsing the state meet record by 0.07 seconds.
From there, Greer and Williams needed to make a decision on what to do next.
"(Coach) Bob wanted me to do more local races, but I realized that door had closed for me," Greer says. "I knew that if I still wanted to run fast times, I had to go to the national meets."
The decision from there was which national meet to pick. Both the USATF Junior Nationals and the Nike Outdoor Nationals beckoned, but he couldn't compete in both -- they were on the same weekend. Greer thought long and hard before selecting the USATF meet.
"I chose that over the Nike Outdoor meet because there was a chance to qualify for World Juniors, and I felt like it had a little more prestige," Greer says. "I wasn't sure how I felt about going. I had to travel more than I was used to."
But Greer put his reservations aside and headed for the Junior Nationals in Columbus, Ohio. Immediately, he felt things were going right. In the prelims, Greer cruised to a victory with what was then a personal-best time of 1:50.15.
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One day later, however, he didn't feel nearly as confident.
"I wasn't too optimistic," he says. "I had a stomach ache,
I didn't have high energy, and I didn't think it was going to be the best race."
Two things kept Greer on track. One was that talent,
something he had cultivated with intense workouts and a commitment to his craft. The other was strategy. The measure of a great runner is the ability to plot out a race strategy and stick to it regardless of the
circumstances, and that's exactly what Greer did.
To prepare, he ran through the race over and over in his mind. While even some of the world's best runners might get caught up in the
competition, Greer stayed focused.
"I had a race strategy in mind that wasn't the runners around me," he says. "I had prepared certain spots on the track where I was going to make my moves."
Once the race began, Greer attacked with his carefully drawn plan. He hit his mark in the first 200, eased off on the back stretch to conserve energy and settled into the pack just past the 400 mark before gearing up for the home stretch. Greer took the lead with about 200 meters to go and never looked back.
"I was just floating," he says.
"The way his training had gone, I knew he was ready for something special," Williams says. "I knew he could run under 1:50. I did not know he could run 1:47."
Greer's half-mile times are extraordinary -- so much so that he hopes to challenge the national prep record of 1:46.45, set by Michael Granville of California in 1996.
Should he stop there? Greer's state title in the 1,500 two years ago and his success during cross country season -- he finished ninth at the Class 6A state meet this past fall -- have some wondering if he should do more to score points for Lake Oswego. The Lakers' track team
finished seventh at state last spring and returned many of its top
athletes this season.
With so many points seemingly within reach, why not insert Greer into some more events? It's a strategy the coaching staff has discussed at length, but no conclusions had been reached at press time. It will largely depend on Greer.
"We have the potential to do very well as a team this year," coach Lider says. "But I am not into using Elijah for the coaches' glory or success so we can put him on our résumé. We're just focused on him having the best success he can."
And Greer's importance to the team goes beyond his
point-scoring abilities. He has brought leadership to practices and meets. When Lider needs someone to show the team how something is done, he calls on Greer.
"We do a lot of strength and conditioning, and we have Elijah demonstrate all the time," Lider says. "He's a role model on our team."
But Greer has more than just the respect of his teammates. After last year, the entire track world knows what he can do.
Christopher Parish covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.