(I’m feeling guilty that I didn’t attend the USATF Indoor Track and Field championships this weekend, even though they were less than ten miles from my house and plenty of tickets were available. To assuage my guilt, I’m going to spend this week writing about athletes and events from the championships.)
The runner leading the early laps of the two-mile at the USATF Indoor Championships on Saturday was real enough, but when I heard the announcers call out German Fernandez’ name, I felt a mild shock, as though I had seen a ghost. in fact, I get that feeling every time I see Fernandez in a race. As excited as I am that he’s healthy and out there competing with the top guys in the country, I can’t help think about the ghostly presence he’s chasing, the memory of a teenager with an effortless stride and an almost limitless promise. Six and a half years ago — in the Spring of 2008 — Fernandez ran the greatest U.S. high school distance double in history. Competing at the California State Meet, Fernandez won the 1600, running 4:00.29 to break Ryan Hall’s state meet record. Three hours later he won the 3200 in 8:34.23, a time that converts to ~8:37.4 for two miles, within a second of the high school record at the time. Three weeks later he would run 8:34 for a full two miles to claim the high school record. He was 17 years old.
2008 CA State Meet – 1600m
2008 CA State Meet – 3200m
As an 18-year-old freshman at Oklahoma State, Fernandez set a world junior record and NCAA collegiate record in the indoor mile, running 3:55.02. He took a break from indoor track to win the American Junior XC championships, and then, in the outdoor season, he won the NCAA 1500m championship against a loaded field, leading almost the entire way. A couple of weeks later, he ran an American junior record for 5000 meters (13:25.46) to finish 5th at the U.S. Championships.
2009 NCAA Championship – 1500m final
There have always been phenoms in Track and Field, young athletes who from an early age seemed destined for greatness. Occasionally, the adult achievements fulfill that destiny, although the path is not always a smooth one. In many other cases, however, the athlete never finds the same level of success they had when competing in high school or as a junior. I suppose we should say that with Fernandez, the matter had not been settled. He is, after all, only 24 years old. But the last five years have been a long, long struggle. There have been moments where he has looked world-class (a 3:34 1500 in 2012), but mostly it has been a story of overcoming injuries and trying to be healthy enough to train consistently.
Recently, Fernandez has been doing that under coach Jerry Schumacher with the Nike/Bowerman TC group. Although his results haven’t been stellar, one imagines that the real goal is to build slowly while avoiding setbacks.
In Saturday’s two-mile, Fernandez wouldn’t maintain the lead for long, and in the end faded back into the pack to finish 8th in 8:37.15. The time was nearly three seconds slower than the 8:34.40 that Fernandez ran six and a half years earlier as a 17-year-old H.S. senior. Maybe the comparison is unfair. This was an indoor race in February for place, not an outdoor race in June that was essentially a time trial. Still, the results showed that at least on this day, the ghost would not be caught.