The Long Odds of Andrew Wheating
by Jon Gugala
There are a number of reasons Andrew Wheating of the Oregon Track Club Elite should not be advancing to the semifinals of the men's 1500-meters on Sunday, August 5. But he is.
The first and most obvious is that in Friday's heat two of Olympic rounds he finished seventh in one of the slower heats, thereby missing the guaranteed auto-qualifier. It was only after the final heat that his 3:40.72--the same time of the heat three winner--earned him the very last spot of six accepted to advance by time.
There's also the fact that Wheating, 25, has been nursing injuries all year, first with a gimpy hamstring in the spring, and then just before the U.S. Olympic team trials a wicked case of plantar fasciitis (saying after the final, "I [felt] a spark in my foot and I [thought] it's all over . . . I blacked out the last 50 meters, so I can't really tell you how I felt"). There were seven U.S. men with faster times this year, making his racing to a top-three spot a long shot. He still took third.
Finally, there's the fact that Wheating is six foot, five inches (1.96 meters for our international audience), which defies the laws of physics for a man of his size to go fast in a distance race (physics have long been unfairly biased toward the little wispy ones). Doesn't matter: he ran a 3:30.90 1500m PR in 2010.
For Wheating, long-shots and come-from-behinds are the medium he works in, in the same way that some artists work in acrylics.
This is Andrew Wheating you're talking about. This is the guy who didn't start running until the winter of his senior year of high school. This is the same guy that, as a collegian, was only the runner-up in the NCAA 800m before shocking the country as a runner-up at the 2008 U.S. Olympic team trials. This is the same guy that ran his 3:30 1500m best (3:30? Are you kidding me?) in basically his first at-bat, a massive eight second improvement as a 22-year-old that came after he'd not seriously made an attempt for two years.
History has proven the laws of probability--and expectation, and physics, and rationality--do not apply to Andrew Wheating. And so why wouldn't he advance to the semis by the skin of his teeth?
And on Sunday, why couldn't Wheating advance to the finals?
On paper Wheating finds himself off to a bad spot for Sunday's semis. The third slowest runner by season-best in his heat of 12, of those 12, only one, Australia's Ryan Gregson, also advanced by time, albeit a faster one. (Fun fact: it was Gregson who was just behind Wheating in his 1500m PR race in 2010.) Of those 12 men, six have set PRs this year, including the Avatar-looking Asbel Kiprop, whose 3:28.88 in Monaco is the fastest time since 2005. If you're the type to hedge your bets, the safer one would be Leo Manzano, who auto-advanced from his heat and has been at the top of his game all year. Or you could bet on Matt Centrowitz, the 2011 World Championships bronze medalist, who also advanced by place.
The odds are long for Wheating (specifically for his Olympic win, 1-in-100 odds according to most London bookies, and only if you scroll down really, really far). But Wheating defies odds. He makes his own magic, unexpected, unpredicted, and in the clutch.
Wheating has had a year that shouldn't warrant him leaving the U.S. And you could say that on Sunday he's got as likely a chance to advance to the final as Kiprop has of not. But Wheating has made his own magic for too long now to take the London odds at face value.
On Sunday, my money's on Wheating.