Basketball mandates players cannot come straight from high school, football has to groom you for a system and baseball normally requires paying your dues in some far flung minor league town. Running, however, has no real definitive or measured path to professionalism and grooming for the international scene for its elite athletes. When a young runner decides upon whether to remain with a college squad, to go pro or in some cases to leave the sport altogether, it is a path without a distinct trail to follow.
In the past ten years, we have seen a mixture of top flight competitors with much promise head in very different directions and with varied results.
The first and possibly most publicized of these turning professional decisions was that of miler Alan Webb signing a contract with Nike after just one year under the tutelage of coach Ron Warhurst at the University of Michigan. This life changing and momentous event was documented in author Chris Lear’s book Sub 4:00 and showed how painful and difficult a process it was for a young running star to forsake the collegiate route and blaze a trail into the pro ranks.
The choice has been questioned by many who fear that - just like in many other sports – the lure of money and resources at the disposal of major brands may be too enticing for a young athlete still finding themselves and who they are as a competitor.
For Webb, it has been a route not often followed by others as he has undergone long bouts of injury, a musical chair system with his coaches and the pressure of living up to his accolades that he set as a prep athlete.
Some have argued staying with the Michigan program and letting it become more ingrained would have produced better results for the wunderkind as he was still developing, but we may never know this for certain. We do know that fellow Wolverine and Olympic silver medalist Nick Willis, whose tenure in Ann Arbor was longer than Webb’s, has proven to be much more consistent than his American counterpart.
Most recently Robby Andrews, the superstar 800 runner of the University of Virginia, elected to forgo his last year of eligibility and follow former Cavalier coach Jason Vigilante whom he credits as bringing him to the level he has attained. Working out with him in training will be none other than Webb who we hope can instill the wisdom he has learned from his early move to the pro’s to the young half miler.
The move by Andrews echoes another superstar runner leaving school in favor of training with their coach. That athlete would be Evan Jager, who bolted from powerhouse Wisconsin to take after Jerry Schumacher and pursue immediate professionalism. Jager experienced tremendous success in his first pro season making the World Championship team in 2009 but has experienced injury woes and growing pains in recent years.
He and Andrews both will vie for spots on the U.S. Olympic team and will do so without the distraction of a prolonged NCAA season and its responsibilities to a team.
An instance where a coach was vehemently opposed to an athlete going pro was Texas A&M sprinter Curtis Mitchell and his decision to forgo collegiate eligibility despite coach Pat Henry’s explicit objections. Henry openly spoke against the decision citing the predatory behavior of sport agents and the developmental aspects of Mitchell’s growth being hampered,.
Since succeeding on the collegiate scene, Mitchell has gone quiet and leaves one to wonder if this is an example of a great athlete putting the cart before the horse after only having success at one level and instantly believing themselves to be prepared for the next.
In opposition to this would be the case of Matt Centrowitz, who left Oregon with a year left of eligibility but before doing so had tested his skills by capturing a World bronze medal against the world’s finest. In this instance a young athlete knew what the professional world would look like as he had been there and faced the best, while in the other cases the competition had been primarily those in the collegiate and junior systems which though competitive are the difference between facing the New York Yankees and the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes.
If a runner is set to become pro early they must have some knowledge and tests against the world competition and see what awaits them.
Also to consider is the emotional, educational and social aspects of becoming a professional at a time when a youth is being molded into the adult they will become. In a sport that can be isolating and having harsh demands upon a persons psyche and schedule, an early move to the professional level must be done with utmost care.
We may continue to see runners move pro early from their college programs, but do not expect this to become widespread as the lifestyle and responsibilities of being a pro may be a barrier to an exodus of talent from the developmental stages already in place. Whichever path is taken, one can only hope that there is thorough thinking and weighing of the benefits and costs related to the life of a professional as a youth.