Two months after world triathlon title, Verzbicas finds his calling

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Lukas Verzbicas in one of his two cross-county meets for Oregon.  (Ken Moreland photo)

Lukas Verzbicas in one of his two cross-county meets for Oregon. (Ken Moreland photo / December 16, 2013)

"I was in the best collegiate (running) program in history and the best collegiate program for distance running, but when you're thinking something totally different, that can't help you," he said.

"Oregon gave me all I needed.  The problem was just deep inside me.  I wasn't inspired, and that was nobody's fault but mine.  It's unfortunate this all happened."

Verzbicas began to think seriously about leaving after the Oct. 29 Pac-12 Championships, where he was the fourth Oregon finisher and 23rd overall.  Some comments on running web sites have criticized him for the timing of his departure, with Oregon preparing for Saturday's NCAA West Regional meet.

"In all honesty, I think I would not have been much help to my team," he said.  "Someone else having this opportunity will benefit (from it) a lot more than me."

Verzbicas was pleased that Oregon coach Vin Lananna said in a Thursday statement that the door would be open if he wanted to return.  (Lananna did not respond to messages seeking further comment.)

"When we recruited Lukas, we knew he was a very talented athlete with opportunities in both sports, and we were delighted he chose to attend the University of Oregon and focus on track and field," Lananna also said in the statement.  "Given his recent success at the World Junior Triathlon Championship in Beijing, we can appreciate his desire to follow his dreams and support his desire to pursue his athletic goals."

Verzbicas intends to enroll at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, where athletes in USA Triathlon's new elite academy are on scholarship.  Two of the five currently in the academy also are from Chicago's west suburbs:  McDowell and Kelly Whitley of Geneva.   Bertulis is the academy's coach.

It is highly unlikely Verzbicas can qualify for the 2012 Olympics.

He lacks experience at the senior level, having never done an Olympic distance triathlon, where each of the three disciplines is twice as long as the junior level.

Verzbicas, undoubtedly the most gifted U.S. runner ever to choose triathlon, plans to make his senior debut at the Jan. 13 Pan American Championships in Argentina.   From there, he needs to get high finishes in enough races to rank among the top eight U.S. men, who earn places in a May 12-13 ITU World Championship Series meet in San Diego, where Olympic places are at stake.

And then there is the matter of U.S. citizenship, necessary to compete for the United States in the Olympics.  At this point, the Lithuania-born Verzbicas, who has a green card, is not expected to gain U.S. citizenship before the London Games.

So his more realistic goal is the 2016 Rio Olympics.

"I'm thinking long term," he said.

After 2016, Verzbicas said, he might even consider a return to running.  But there are much better financial opportunities for an elite triathlete than an elite distance runner, with the exception of the top marathoners.

"Sure, money is a big part of being an athlete, and I understand that," he said.  "But the main point is to be happy in what you do and be successful."
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