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.”
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