The look on Andrew Wheating's face when he crossed the finish line said it all. That look of genuine surprise, eyes wide and mouth open in a perfect circle - matching the big O for Oregon on his shirt - as if he had just won the lottery.
In a sense, he had. Wheating - a 20-year-old from Norwich, Vermont, a kid who had only raced on the track for three seasons, who at 6'5" towers over everyone, and who no one had heard of until he broke the four-minute barrier in the mile in April - qualified for the Olympics in the men's 800-meter run.
A sophomore at the University of Oregon, he ran in front of a cheering crowd at Eugene's Hayward Field, once home to Wheating's hero, the late Steve Prefontaine, the Oregon athlete known simply as "Pre" who is considered one of the greatest and most inspirational runners in America.
With a finishing kick that looks as if he has after burners in his shoes, Wheating moved from last place to second in the final 150 meters of the 800 final at Olympic Trials to finish in a personal best of 1:45.03. He was less than a second behind winner Nick Symmonds and almost a half-second in front of third place finisher Christian Smith. The top three qualified for Beijing.
Not bad for a guy whose personal best a year ago was over five seconds slower.
"It hasn't really hit me yet," Wheating said after the 800-meter final. "Give me a couple more minutes and I'll probably shoot up out of this chair and scream 'I made it!'"
Vermont is home to dozens of winter Olympians, a few - such as skier Felix McGrath - hailing from Norwich, a hamlet that serves as a bedroom community for Hanover, N.H., home to Dartmouth College, and more industrial Lebanon, N.H. Few Vermont athletes have ever competed in the summer Olympics; to date, Wheating and weightlifter Carissa Gordon Gump are the only Vermonters headed to Beijing.
From such a small state, Wheating has become a hometown hero. The state's largest newspapers have closely followed his triumphs this season, finally putting him on the front page this week. "Vermont native makes the Olympics," read the front-page headline in the Rutland Herald, the state's second-largest newspaper, on Wednesday.
His former coaches, teachers, friends, and even those who have never met him have been glued to their TVs, watching recorded coverage of the 800 again and again. Kevin Ramos-Glew, a Spanish teacher from his former high school Kimball Union Academy and one of Wheating's first mentors and cheerleaders, almost bought a plane ticket to Eugene, Oregon, after Wheating qualified for the 800m finals, but due to work and family constraints had to settle for Wheating's regular phone calls to him through trials.
Wheating's trip to Beijing began on a cinder track in rural New Hampshire in the fall of 2003. A sophomore at Kimball Union, a private school across the Connecticut River from Norwich, Wheating had his eye on the soccer team. To make the team, he had to run a timed mile.
"He ran (the mile in) close to five flat, and he wasn't really trying," remembers KUA soccer coach Scribner Fauver, who's also the head of the school's language department. "He stood with me and chatted while the others came in."
Fauver suggested the lanky kid try out for the cross-country team instead. But Wheating had soccer on the brain and told Fauver that he'd like to stick with it, making the JV team that year as a forward.
The following fall, Fauver made the soccer players do a two-mile timed run to make the team. "Andy's time was absurdly low, and he wasn't winded," says Fauver. "He was fresh as a daisy."
Fauver repeated to Wheating that he really should try cross-country instead. "His stride was so good," Fauver says. "He covered ground so effortlessly, it looked like he should at least explore running."
"He makes his height look like it's the most natural, best possible God-given gift to have," says Ramos-Glew. "He made it look so natural, like this is what the best runner in the world should look like."
Fauver told Wheating, "You'll always have soccer, it'll be there for you your whole life. What if you're really good at this? It could change your life."
Again, Wheating resisted. But at KUA, a small prep school with only 350 students, the faculty is accustomed to nurturing talented, stubborn teenagers. So Fauver did an end-run around Wheating and enlisted the help of other KUA teachers and coaches to persuade him to switch sports. ("My greatest coaching achievement is talking a boy out of my sport," jokes Fauver.)
"Part of Andy's reticence was being a high school kid growing up in an area where soccer is cool and not wanting to commit necessarily to just running," says Ramos-Glew, a runner himself.
When he was young, Ramos-Glew had "worshipped" Prefontaine. "I said, ‘Andy, give me a minute and I'll show you someone who will prove to you that being the fastest runner in the world is better than being the anything team player in the world,'" says Ramos-Glew.
Wheating finally agreed to give running a try and was soon winning every race he entered. His senior year, he won the National Junior Olympic cross-country title.
During the winter seasons at KUA, 6'5" Wheating was an obvious choice for the basketball team. As luck would have it, the basketball coach, Dave Faucher, was friends with Jeff Johnson, known as "the Nike guy" in this neck of New Hampshire for his early involvement with the running shoe manufacturer. Johnson agreed to coach Wheating.
KUA doesn't have a track team, so in the spring of Wheating's senior year, Johnson asked Lebanon High School track & field coach Andrew Gamble if Wheating could work out on the local high school's track.
"I said of course he can," Gamble says. "Then we made it available so Andy could run at all of our meets."
"I remember Jeff put him in a 400 just to see what kind of speed he had because we didn't know," adds Gamble. "He won that race and beat one of my guys who was a pretty good 400 runner, just spanked him.
"Then we really started to see his talent come through in the 800 at the Connecticut Valley Conference Championships (in 2006). He ran in the low 1:50s, like 1:54. That was only his second or third 800. So we knew he was going to be pretty special."
Through Johnson, Wheating ended up at the University of Oregon (Johnson is friends with Oregon track coach Vin Lananna).
His freshman year, Wheating showed promise, racing in both the 2007 NCAA West Regional meet and Pac-10 Championships.
But the seeds of the Wheating legend didn't germinate until February 2008. At the University of Washington Invitational, an indoor meet, Wheating lost a shoe as he started his 800-meter leg of the distance-medley relay. He thought about stopping to put his shoe back on but decided to keep running for his teammates' sake.
Shoeless, he still ran a 1:50 or 1:51 split. For the next few days, he hobbled around on crutches while the blister on the bottom of this foot healed.
During this spring's outdoor track season, his times in middle-distance races marched ever downward. On April 26, at the Oregon Relays, Wheating broke the four-minute barrier in the mile - the first Vermonter to ever reach this milestone, and news quickly reached home. A week later, he won the 800 at Stanford's Cardinal Invitational, and set a new personal record of 1:47.82.
At the NCAA Championships in June, he finished second in 1:45.32 - by 0.01 seconds - in the 800m, his only defeat in collegiate racing this season.
On the opening night of the Olympic Trials on June 27, in front of the cheering crowd, he finished second again in the 800 but qualified for the finals in that distance.
"There were a few people calling my name," he said after the 800 qualifier. "I guess I am not a guy from the middle of nowhere now."
Still, he wasn't a favorite to place in the 800m finals. He was vying for a spot on the Olympic team against guys like four-time national champion and former Olympian Khadevis Robinson and U.S. indoor champion Nick Symmonds.
From the gun, Wheating settled into what many would have expected was the place for such a running neophyte at Olympic Trials - the back of the pack.
But when Symmonds made his move, Wheating went with him. Moving to the outside in the final 100 meters, Wheating found the gas and charged to the line. A look of complete awe and wonder crossed his face when he saw his name on the scoreboard.
"The first thing I saw was that Nick was first, I was second and Christian was third," Wheating said. "It's going to be a great representation in Beijing."
When asked about Wheating's chances in Beijing, Ramos-Glew is optimistic. "He's such a decent, wonderful human being, I don't think he's ever buckled under the pressure of weird nerves of competitiveness. He's truly a 20-year-old fresh-faced kid who's running for the love of it."
After the 800 qualifier at trials, Wheating called Ramos-Glew and asked if they could go running together when he returned to Vermont. "His fans and supporters matter so much to him," says Ramos-Glew. "It matters to him to run with a slow 32-year-old."
But now that Wheating is heading to China, Ramos-Glew is unsure of when Wheating will return home.
Through it all Wheating has remained wide-eyed without the fame or recognition going to his head.
"This season has been a complete shock to me," he said after the Oregon Twilight meet in May. "I haven't heard many big names, and I don't know many big names. I have no idea who they're talking about. It's cool to be considered one of the top dogs. But I'm a Duck."
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.