Friday, November 11, 2011

My 2 Spikes Worth: The not so mysterious case of Lukas Verzbicas

World Champion Triathlete, National Champion Runner
When you heard the news yesterday that Lukas Verzbicas had dropped out of the University of Oregon to focus on the triathlon full time, how surprised were you? Me, a little surprised, but not shocked. While I hate to see someone with so much running talent partially abandon his running career and head for the dark side that is the triathlon (kidding, of course), I am rational enough to understand why.

While Verzbicas had dominated the prep running scene in the United States for the last three years, his times don't measure up to what's going on internationally. In the triathlon, they do. One of the biggest factors that had to have been looming in his mind while he slogged through at few disappointing 8k's this fall, was the fact that just a few months earlier, he had won the World Junior Championship in the Triathlon.

"Decided to pursue my olympic dream and dedicate myself fully as a triathlete with the intention of making the 2012 USA Olympic team." 

Verzbicas reunites with Step-Father/Old coach in CO
While Verzbicas had committed to running full time earlier in the spring when he accepted a scholarship to run at the University of Oregon, he had not, at the time, claimed a World Championship. Also, over the summer, his step-father, and former co-coach, Romas Bertulis, was named head coach at the Elite Triathlon Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. The stars were aligning for a way out, if the whole collegiate running thing didn't go the way that Verzbicas had hoped. Unfortunately, for running fans, it didn't, but something tells me the wheels were in motion the day that Bertulis accepted the job in Colorado.

One of two races as an Oregon Duck
So what now for Verzbicas? He mentioned that his immediate goal is to begin training for the 2012 Olympics. One question I have is, could it not have waited two weeks? He will suffer some well deserved backlash for leaving his fellow Oregon Ducks a few days before regionals to follow his dream. Also, as Competitor's Mario Fraoili mentioned yesterday on Twitter, Verzbicas is not a US Citizen. While I am sure this is something that can be fast-tracked (no pun intended) for someone like Verzbicas, it is still a hurdle. Between that and moving up the ranks in the complicated Olympic qualifying process that the USA Triathlon has, he'll have his hands full.

Will Gatorade come calling?
And what about the sponsors? Who will be first aboard? Will Nike, the underbelly of the school he just shunned get into the Triathlon game, step up and be the first? I doubt it, at least not yet. Verzbicas is an undeniable star, but his abrupt exit from the running game will rub many fans the wrong way. There's been a lot of initial backlash from the community that doesn't necessary "get the triathlon."  If the Triathlon continues to grow, Nike will likely get more involved, but my guess is that his early options will be more along the K-Swiss or Newton level, with obvious potential opportunities with Gatorade, GU, Speedo, Trek, Specialized, etc.

Personally, I can't blame Verzbicas for doing what he's best in. I don't like the timing, but as Hunter S. Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." I don't think there could be a more fitting quote about the subject, as with all the speculation over the past few days before the announcement, things were most certainly weird. I certainly wish Verzbicas the best and hope he does make the 2012 Olympic team. It will give me more of a reason to follow the sport, but don't expect there to be a whole lot of coverage here or adoption by most US running fans. I've run and followed the sport of Track and Field for twenty years. I will watch the Ironman replay when it's on NBC. That's how I, and many, many running fans feel about the Tri. I hope Verzbicas realizes this when the throngs of running fans begin to look for the next big thing and let him do his three a days in peace.

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