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Project 2016: Lukas Verzbicas

Is high school running phenom Lukas Verzbicas the future face of American triathlon?

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Is high school running phenom Lukas Verzbicas the future face of American triathlon?

Note: This article was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine. Since its publication, Verzbicas was involved in a serious bike crash on July 31. Learn about Verzbicas progress and recovery here.

Romas Bertulis looks like The Thinker statue as he watches over his athletes, who are swimming in the Olympic Training Center’s monstrous indoor pool in Colorado Springs, Colo.

He sits in the stands, scribbling notes and taking splits. His reading glasses are perched on his nose—he looks through them at his notes and over them at his athletes—and he’s got two stopwatches hanging around his neck along with his training center credential, which allows him access to the guarded campus. He wears track pants and a T-shirt; his hair is almost entirely silver, and his big gray-blue eyes gaze intensely at wherever it is he’s looking.

His body, with its broad shoulders and stout legs, is one of a man who used to compete as a decathlete for the U.S.S.R., and he speaks gruffly in broken English and a heavy Lithuanian accent.

I’m sitting beside him, and we are discussing the kids who are part of the Elite Triathlon Academy at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, for which he serves as head coach. The academy, in its inaugural year, is the only place in the U.S. where athletes can earn college scholarships as triathletes. Bertulis took the job as its head coach after a coaching stint at the Multisport Madness elite youth triathlon team in Chicago’s suburbs, where he moved with his family after spending many years as the national decathlon coach for Lithuania.

We are also discussing his 19-year-old stepson, Lukas Verzbicas, who is swimming with the academy athletes (or far ahead of them, more accurately) and who recently left the University of Oregon, which he had been attending on a full track and field scholarship, to be a professional triathlete.

Abruptly, Bertulis asks me whether I think Verzbicas has the talent to one day beat Alistair Brownlee, the reigning world champion in Olympic-distance triathlon and the favorite for gold in London.

 

I deflect the question back to him and ask him the same thing. He smiles broadly. “Why I here?” he asks.

***

Winning Olympic gold in triathlon is a project that Bertulis and Verzbicas have been working on since Verzbicas was 12 years old, when he started competing in triathlons for Multisport Madness, a team that has won six youth team triathlon championships.

Verzbicas—who is now a lanky, baby-faced teenager with a Justin Bieber haircut and two of the most muscular legs you’ll ever see—remembers that back then, his stepfather told him he could one day be an Olympic champion.

“Of course, I was like 12, 13 years old,” said Verzbicas, who speaks with a Midwestern drawl. “Obviously, I couldn’t be [one then]. But he said, ‘You will be one day.’”

And while Bertulis may have planted the seeds of the dream, Verzbicas eagerly bought into it—when he was in middle school, he wrote a paper on how he wanted to be an Olympic champion in triathlon, and he participated in triathlon every spring and summer from the time he was in eighth grade until he graduated from high school.

One can’t blame Bertulis for the dream, as it was clear early on that Verzbicas had the kind of engine that could see him through to great accomplishments in endurance sports. He ran circles around the kids in his basketball team, which he joined after he immigrated to the United States from Lithuania as an 8-year-old. Plus, his genetics are hard to top—his mother, Rasa Verzbickiene, is a former national record holder in the 3,000 meters for Lithuania, and his biological father was an elite Lithuanian marathoner.

“I and my wife start thinking, ‘Eight or 10 years from now, where do we see this guy?’” Bertulis said to me about Verzbicas’ early days.

When Verzbicas was a young boy, it was growing increasingly clear to Bertulis that the dominant runners were coming out of Africa, and this presented a problem.

“I want my son win,” he told me.

Triathlon, it seems, was the perfect way to bypass the Africa dilemma and still achieve Olympic glory.

“At first I wanted to be a basketball player, and they [my parents] told me to try triathlon, so that was the first thing. And then they made me stick with triathlon when I started high school,” said Verzbicas.

“Made me stick” is a key phrase here, as when Verzbicas took up track and cross-country in high school, all while he was still competing in triathlon, he arguably became the greatest American prep runner in history. With his back-to-back Footlocker National Cross Country tiles, his scintillating 2-mile high school national record of 8:29, and his status as only the fifth American high school boy to break four minutes in the mile, among many (many) other accomplishments, it would have been easy for Verzbicas to abandon triathlon.

So easy, in fact, that he did eventually abandon it—for a brief period.

If you are a track nerd, you probably remember when Verzbicas announced that he would be running collegiately for the University of Oregon, a school that has played a vital role in the resurgence of American distance running and is best known as the alma mater of the great Steve Prefontaine.

“I have a passion for running,” he told the Chicago Tribune in June of last year. “I don’t have the same for triathlon.”

You probably also remember that Verzbicas decided to leave the university after racing only two cross-country meets: the Wisconsin Adidas Invitational, where he placed 62nd, and the Pac-12 Championships, where he finished 23rd.

It was a decision that created a stir in the running community, and Verzbicas received a lot of flak for leaving the team mid-season and before the national championships.

While it may be warranted to chastise Verzbicas for the timing of his decision, he maintains that there were so many fast runners in Oregon that his absence wasn’t that big of a deal.

“There wasn’t too much of a concern because our freshman class was really big,” he said.

Oregon cross-country coach Vin Lananna, who declined to comment for this story, said in a Register-Guard newspaper interview shortly after Verzbicas’ departure that he was surprised by Verzbicas’ decision, that he didn’t agree with it, but that he didn’t believe the team felt any resentment toward Verzbicas for his change in tune.

“I don’t think our group of guys takes that position,” he told the Oregon paper. “They are really a very cohesive group and a very supportive group of individuals.”

Part of what precipitated Verzbicas’ decision was no doubt an experience he went through in September in Beijing, where he won the world junior triathlon title.

The experience was not so much his win, but the manner in which he won.

When he committed to Oregon on National Signing Day seven months earlier, he had said in many interviews that he would be focusing on running for at least the duration of his collegiate career. But about a month after the commitment, his close friend and Multisport Madness teammate Kevin McDowell, who now also attends the Elite Triathlon Academy in Colorado Springs, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I remember I was in school and one of my teammates text messaged me, saying Kevin has cancer—he just came back from the hospital. I was like, ‘Stop joking around. It’s not funny,’” Verzbicas said. “I couldn’t believe it. I called him myself from school and he confirmed it. It was so unexpected. It’s one of those things you never expect in life.”

McDowell, who had placed third at the junior world championships in 2010, was a favorite to win the junior world title in 2011, but he obviously wouldn’t be able to compete. Verzbicas, who had placed fourth behind McDowell, promised he would win the world title in his honor—a feat he accomplished by running away from a small pack of cyclists he had broken away with. When he crossed the finish line, McDowell, who is now cancer-free and who’d received the OK from his doctors to spectate in Beijing, ran up to him and embraced him. (The YouTube video of this moment is sure to make you smile.)

“I wasn’t expected to do triathlon my senior year of high school,” Verzbicas said. “I think that really changed everything, and if it weren’t for that I think everything would be different.”

In a sense, he maintains he just couldn’t shake the experience—and that, more than anything, is why he left Oregon.

“I think that special feeling really got to me,” Verzbicas said. “It stayed with me when I was at Oregon, and I kind of missed that.”

Oregon—and college life—was a difficult adjustment for Verzbicas in other ways, as he had long ago adopted the monastic lifestyle that is so typical of an Olympic athlete.

“When I was a teenager, I didn’t really have that lifestyle [of a teenager],” he said. “Maybe when I went to college that really got me, too, because I was pretty much free to do what I wanted. I knew I had a responsibility and it was just different because everyone around me was living this college lifestyle, and I’m an elite athlete and I can’t do that. It was just—I’ve never really experienced that before, so it was really a shock to notice that. I wasn’t part of it but everyone else was. So it was not easy just to be a serious athlete.”

Spend a few days with Verzbicas and this comment bears itself out. While he has an apartment in Colorado Springs with a roommate from the Elite Triathlon Academy, he chooses to live with his parents and younger brother. When he was attended the Endurance Live Awards in Los Angeles, his mother went with him. And while I was in Colorado he spent nearly every waking moment with the man whom he credits with coaching him to his great achievements: Bertulis.

“As long as I listen to him and follow what he says, I usually succeed most of the time,” Verzbicas said. “Of course, it’s hard sometimes. We get in arguments. He wants me to be the very best athlete, so when I’m at home, I have to make choices that will only make me the best athlete.”

RELATED VIDEO: Lukas Verzbicas One Month After His Crash


***

When I visited Verzbicas in Colorado in March, he was nursing a stress reaction in his shin that had forced him to drop out of the La Paz PATCO Triathlon Pan American Championships in Argentina—his first attempt at triathlon as a pro.

While there, it appeared that Bertulis was concerning himself more with holding Verzbicas back—preventing him from training too hard—than pushing him toward greatness.

“The biggest problem I have is trying not to overdo it,” said Verzbicas, who is taking the year off from college but plans on enrolling at the University of Colorado in the fall. “Once I came here, from Oregon, that first week, I wasn’t used to the altitude. I just got into training and I was like, ‘We’re going to do this thing. It’s going to be crazy.’ And I just went training and training. I got sick after a week, just altitude sickness and overtraining, and my dad was like, ‘I told you not to do so much.’”

McDowell, who is just starting back to full-time training, says that Verzbicas is “super driven” and always ready to work.

“He always goes hard,” McDowell said. “It’s funny—especially in swimming sometimes, he doesn’t like to wait on the wall. So sometimes on the set, he’ll be like, ‘Let’s make it five seconds faster.’”

During a particularly intense training day I witnessed in Colorado, Verzbicas swam 3,500 yards in the morning, ran 30 minutes on the AlterG treadmill, and then rode to Cheyenne Cañon with a group of athletes that included the Elite Triathlon Academy’s Luke Farkas to attempt some repeats up its 5K climb. (Verzbicas and the rest of the academy later swam another 3,500m to finish off the day.)

After one repeat—which he accomplished with Farkas barely holding on to his wheel toward the end and with Bertulis riding behind in his car—Bertulis told Verzbicas that he should stop, as they simply didn’t have enough time to finish the two remaining repeats they had initially planned. Verzbicas insisted he ride at least one more.

“I can ride down fast,” Verzbicas said, smiling while hinting that the time wasn’t a problem as long as he took risks on the descent.

“No!” Bertulis barked. “It’s dangerous!”

Despite Bertulis’ misgivings, Verzbicas and Farkas made their way down the mountain and started another repeat, one where Verzbicas dropped Farkas entirely, and with Bertulis again following behind in his car.

Once at the top for a second time, Bertulis remarked to me that Verzbicas was done—two repeats was enough. But they spoke in Lithuanian for a moment, and Verzbicas then headed down the mountain for the third repeat, which Farkas skipped, climbing into Bertulis’ car with his face drawn and portraying exhaustion.

“I do think that sometimes Lukas is anxious to be ridiculously good right now,” said veteran professional triathlete Mark Fretta, whom Verzbicas likes to turn to for advice in Colorado Springs. “He can be very good now, but I would encourage him to not focus on the highs and lows, but just to focus on improving.”

This is a sentiment that was echoed by Keith Dickson, who is the founder of the Elite Triathlon Academy and the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team and who has known Verzbicas since he was 12.

“He needs developmental time,” Dickson said, “just like anybody at 19.”

While any hope that Verzbicas had of qualifying for the 2012 Olympic trials in San Diego and thus the 2012 Olympics was crushed when he came down with his shin injury, what’s scary about him is that he is rapidly improving, especially in his swim, which used to be a major weakness. (In his pro debut, a race that consisted of B- and C-level triathletes, Verzbicas was about one minute down on the leaders into T1.)

“He came in here last year in the winter months of November and December, and we were all just swimming circles around him,” Fretta said. “After a few months of work, he’s turned into an unbelievable swimmer, at least in the pool. Hopefully that will turn into performance in races. He’s really improved his swim.”

While I was in Colorado, Bertulis told me that Verzbicas could now swim 100m in a long-course pool at altitude in less than one minute, and that he had recently done 4 x 100 yards off the wall in 53 seconds each (with two minutes rest after each interval). While these times won’t get him to the Olympics in swimming, they are certainly competitive for athletes at the highest level of ITU racing.

Verzbicas credits his quick improvement to his stepdad breaking his swim workouts into two shorter sessions as opposed to one long session, which prevents athletes from unintentionally practicing poor technique when they’re overly tired, and to the expertise of Genadijus “Dr. G” Sokolovas, a swimming guru who has worked with the likes of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Amanda Beard.

“Dr. G did a swim analysis, and I was really bad,” Verzbicas said. “He told me what to improve on, so I have to really thank him, and I’ve been working on that ever since.”

***

While Verzbicas obviously has the talent and inner drive to be the best triathlete in the world, as to whether he will achieve this is another question—one that is always raised when any young athlete shows spectacular promise. (We all remember Julia Stamps, Freddy Adu, Reggie Bush and other high school phenoms who were crowned as the soon-to-be greatest ever but who never quite measured up to that standard.)

Verzbicas seems highly aware of the pitfalls of early success. When I asked him whether or not he had given himself enough of a chance at Oregon, he said, “I mean, it could be. That’s definitely a possibility. But as I said, I definitely won’t be there [at that elite level] if I don’t enjoy it. Then I’ll just be forgotten and long gone and no one will get excited about running that had supported me. It’s no use to anyone if I’m not successful, and here [in Colorado] I’m really enjoying myself more and the people around me are enjoying this more.”

Verzbicas also seems willing—at least in theory—to take the lumps that are normally obligatory in anyone’s bid for Olympic gold.

“To make any success feel special, you have to have failures,” he said.

At the time of this writing, Verzbicas has not yet finished an elite-level race, so it’s difficult to say what kind of racing sense Verzbicas has in elite triathlon or whether he has the killer instinct that is necessary to be a great champion outside of the high school and junior ranks.

However, signs suggest that he does.

“Lukas has a need and a desire to win,” Multisport Madness’ Dickson said. “He has that mental capacity to get on a start line and know deep down inside how good he is. He’s not afraid. He believes he’s the best. There are a few guys we’ve seen in history that can do that, and he seems to have a bunch of that.”

When Verzbicas is working out, he laughs and jokes and has a good time, but he also exudes a quiet intensity—his big gray-blue eyes hone in on whatever it is he’s looking at, just like his stepfather’s. During a swim session with technique guru Dr. G, Verzbicas stared intently at Dr. G whenever he spoke, seemingly blocking out everything else around him so that he could soak up every possible piece of advice.

***

Like many phenoms, Verzbicas was encouraged early on by his parents. When I asked him, “Do you feel like they’ve pushed you to do what you’ve done?” he responded, “Yeah. Definitely.”

But they also provide him with a loving and supportive home.

I spent an evening at the Bertulis-Verzbicas household, which is an apartment on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, and it was here that Verzbicas finally opened up.

Prior to this evening, Verzbicas was extremely shy around me, answering questions with aplomb but rarely speaking unless spoken to.

During dinner, Verzbicas laughed, teased his mom with comments such as, “That’s not true, mom. You just made that up,” and lightheartedly corrected his parents on their English. He also talked about his interest in philosophy and political science, how he was homesick for Chicago, and why he would want to be an Army Ranger if the whole endurance athlete thing doesn’t work out for him. (Because you’d be part of something that was greater than yourself.)

He didn’t mind when his mom, an upbeat woman who is always smiling, brought out photo albums, which included those taken after one of Verzbicas’ early road races, where he went out too fast and could barely stand or sit up straight afterward.

His parents also told me a story about Bertulis’ early days in America, when he worked in construction and found a discarded American flag in the trash. Disillusioned that Americans would desecrate their flag like that, he retrieved it and took it home to wash.

“You should respect the flag,” Verzbicas’ mother said gravely to me.

That very flag now hangs on a wall in their home office, draped with a mound of medals Verzbicas has won over the years.

That very flag and its festoon of medals now represent the quiet, hardworking sensibilities of an immigrant family searching for the American dream.

A dream that, for this family, comes in the form of the Olympic rings.

“The primary goal is 2016,” Verzbicas said. “That’s what I’ve always been planning.”

The Unbeaten Path to Sub-4

In the summer of 2011, Lukas Verzbicas accomplished two of the greatest achievements in high school running history: He broke German Fernandez’s national 2-mile record by five seconds by running an 8:29, and he became only the second American boy to run the mile in less than four minutes in a high-school-only race. (What was particularly impressive about the mile was he broke four minutes under windy and rainy conditions in New York.)

To what does Verzbicas credit his running success? Triathlon.

After abandoning triathlon for a short period in early 2011, he took it up again in April of that year to train for the ITU Junior World Championship in Beijing.

“I got this training base of swimming and biking that I couldn’t get [otherwise], then I had one month of just track,” Verzbicas said.

For a period of about six weeks, Verzbicas would get up in the morning for an easy run, go to school, and then drive 50 miles from school to Aurora, Ill., where the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team is based. There, he would practice with the team for up to three hours before driving home.

Most of Verzbicas’ running, he says, consisted of intensity: intervals, tempo runs and fartleks.

“That was when I skyrocketed to doing well,” he said.

RELATED: Lukas Verzbicas’ Road To Rio