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.