Legacy. Tradition. A who’s who of American sport. As the Gatorade Player of the Year program enters its fourth decade of honoring the nation’s best high school athletes, fans can count many a household name on the roster of former award-winners. Over the past three decades, prep sports’ most esteemed honor boasts Super Bowl, World Series, NBA, WNBA, MLS Cup, NCAA and Olympic champions among more than 14,000 State Players of the Year and 280 National POYs across 12 sports. Let’s not forget the scores of program alumni who have gone on to capture league-MVP, All-Star and All-American recognition.
Later this month, Gatorade will announce this year’s National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year. To get fans in the mood, we’re catching up with two-time Gatorade Boys National Cross Country Runner of the Year Lukas Verzbicas.
The odds are against Lukas Verzbicas representing the United States in the triathlon at the Olympic Games this summer in Rio de Janeiro.
Verzbicas is the 19th-ranked American in the International Triathlon Union’s Olympic Qualification Points List. In all likelihood, three triathletes from the United States will qualifying for the Rio Games.
But Verzbicas, the two-time Gatorade National Cross Country Runner of the Year, has already overcome extraordinary odds just to be back competing in triathlons, let alone competing to qualify for the Olympics.
In July 2012, barely 18 months after winning National Runner of the Year honors for a second time as a senior at (Orland Park, Ill.) Carl Sandburg High, Verzbicas was on a training ride in Colorado. He lost control of his bike, and in the resulting fall Verzbicas suffered two broken vertebrae, a broken clavicle, a broken thorax and a collapsed lung. Doctors placed two rods in his back and several screws in his clavicle. They told Verzbicas that he might never run again.
That was a pretty haunting diagnosis for one of the best prep runners this country has every seen. Verzbicas set high school national records in the 2-mile and the 5-kilometer runs and was just the fifth high-school runner to break the magic 4-minute mile. He was a two-time Foot Locker Cross Country Championships national champion, won the 2010 Nike Cross National Final and took first at the 2011 Dream Mile at the adidas Grand Prix, where he ran a 3:59.71. He remains one of only 10 high school athletes to win Gatorade national honors twice in the award program’s 31-year history.
His gloomy diagnosis three and a half years ago didn’t stick. Not even four months after surgery, Verzbicas was at the starting line for his hometown Orland Park Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving. He placed third. Two months after that, Verzbicas traveled to Sarasota, Fla., and won the 4-mile Ringling Bridge Run.
But Fun Runs were a long way from competitive triathlons. Verzbicas had been a top triathlete in high school—he won the 2011 Junior World Triathlon Championships in Beijing a few months after graduating from high school—and he gave up on a track scholarship at the University of Oregon in Nov. 2011 to focus solely on triathlons.
When Verzbicas left Oregon, his goal was to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. He got off to a good start, winning smaller triathlons in Dallas and Banyoles, Spain. Less than a month after those victories came the accident, and Verzbicas had to start over.
It would be more than three years of hard training until Verzbicas would participate in a high-level triathlon again. But on Sept. 17, 2015, Verzbicas was back competing at the World Triathlon Grand Final Championships in Chicago, about 20 miles from where he went to high school. Verzbicas finished 30th in the 23-under division, but finishing was just as important as placing.
So, Verzbicas’ odds for the 2016 Games might look long. A more realistic aim might be the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But he’s beaten the odds before. It would be foolish to bet against him this time, too.