Purcellville, Va. (February 24, 2016) — It’s only appropriate that two men famous for racing around a track should see their own paths come full circle.
Two of the most exciting and prolific male distance runners the United States has ever produced – Northern Virginia products both – met again as Loudoun Valley High School senior Drew Hunter was presented with the Gatorade National Boys Cross-Country Runner of the Year Award by none other than Alan Webb.
Hunter, the guy who always comes in first, was the last to know.
“I had no idea,” said Hunter, the three-time state champion, 2015’s Gatorade Virginia Runner of the Year and the defending national title-holder of the elite Foot Locker Cross-Country Championships.
“I didn’t know how to react. It was just really surreal.”
Not three weeks prior, Hunter broke one of Webb’s many records when he ran an indoor mile in 3:58.25 at an event in New York City. Hunter and Webb are the only two high schoolers in American history to run an indoor mile in under four minutes.
Webb, now retired after a long and illustrious career, came to Purcellville to hand his protégé the gleaming Gatorade trophy.
It’s hardly the first time the two world-class athletes shared the same space. But we’ll get to that.
Prior to Hunter’s arrival, the scene inside the crowded yet hushed weight room at Valley was latent with anticipation. Over a hundred eyes and quite a few cameras were trained on the closed door, knowing any moment that Drew – led to believe he was meeting a local reporter for a short interview – would walk in.
He pushed open the door, stepped inside…and looked straight into the unexpected face of his friend, mentor and idol, 2004 Olympian and all-world athlete Alan Webb.
“Hey, what’s up?” the high schooler managed to get out.
Webb returned the greeting and launched into his spiel. Television cameras rolled, still cameras clicked, teammates and friends and coaches and administrators beamed proudly. Webb was honored, he said, to present Hunter with the prestigious nationwide honor recognizing the top male high school distance runner anywhere in America.
It’s a status Webb knows a little something about. In 2001, as a senior at Reston’s South Lakes High School, Webb won the Gatorade National Boys Track & Field Athlete of the Year (the cross-country award was introduced in 2008).
Webb’s coaches at South Lakes were Joan and Marc Hunter, Drew’s parents. Now the co-coaches of cross-country for Valley, the couple conveyed pride as their son literally stepped into the limelight alongside their renouned former pupil.
“The moment he came through the door I was fighting back tears, thinking of all the hard work and dedication and the little things he’s done to be a good athlete,” said Marc. “It all came to fruition today.”
Joan, who together with her husband led Valley to the school’s first-ever state cross-country championship this past season, said she was “really thrilled.”
“It’s a huge honor to see your son win this award, because it’s such a prestigious award,” she said.
The Hunters recalled with fondness their years mentoring a young Webb in his formative stages – while raising an even younger Drew to eventually match him.
Webb went on to superstar status in the running world, first at the University of Michigan, then as an Olympian and subsequently as a professional.
“It’s been a pleasure to watch Drew progress,” Webb said. “I’m honored to pass the torch on to Drew to go become the next great American miler.”
Somewhere, perhaps, there may exist a photograph – circa 1998 – worth more than a thousand steps.
Back then, on Saturdays in Reston, the Hunters would pull double duty. One eye was on Webb, getting his work in on the big oval track; the other was on baby Drew, playing happily in the sand of the long-jump pit.
“If we had a video that,” said Marc wistfully, his wife adding a “We wish!”, “it would go viral.”
Seeing Webb, the Hunters’ former student, return to present their son with the nation’s highest honor for a high school runner is so cosmically poetic, the proud parents could hardly find the words.
“Drew, growing up, heard about Alan all the time from us,” Marc said. “To have Alan come back to present this award to Drew, well, I mean, that just doesn’t happen in the real world.”
It’s probable that Webb and Hunter will cross paths more in the future. Hunter will attend the University of Oregon, not far from Webb’s home near Portland.
“Alan’s someone I’ve looked up to ever since I started running, pretty much the first runner I’ve known,” Hunter said. “It makes this award five times more special because he’s the one that presented it to me.”
One trait that pervades both athletes is a fierce sense of competitiveness, even among friends. Right after entering the weight room, a school administrator made a formal, if unncessary, introduction.
“This is Alan Webb. You broke his record.”
“Yeah,” said Hunter, not too dazed to be readily aware of the achievement.
“Twice,” Webb put in, his voice hardly upset but certainly not ecstatic about the fact.
For the Hunters – who coach another pretty fast son, Jacob, on the Valley team – there is a direct lineage between Alan’s success, Drew’s success and the future successes of distance runners to come.
“When kids ask us what they need to do, it’s pretty easy,” Marc said. “We just tell them to watch Drew. It’s all the little things behind the scenes – eating right, sleeping, doing the agility training – that not everybody’s willing to do, but he does.”
Valley athletic director Kris Kelican organized the surprise award presentation in coordination with Gatorade. He spoke glowingly about Hunter, an accomplished student as well as athlete.
“Drew’s been a great kid since we’ve known him as a freshman. He’s a model citizen, and he deserves everything he’s been given,” Kelican said. “All the state titles and stuff is great, but it’s the quality of young man he is that really stands out, really represents our school exceptionally well.
“I don’t think anybody will touch his legacy here for years to come.”
Webb gave all the praise to the baby who used to hang around when he was a high school runner.
“What Drew’s become is all him,” the record-holder said. “He’s got a great circle around him, starting with his parents. He’s going to do amazing.”
VivaLoudoun: We Live For Loudoun™
Written by Jason S Rufner
for Viva Loudoun Media Communications