Lukas Verzbicas is early. He's graduating from Carl Sandburg (Ill.) High in south suburban Chicago in only three years, on his way to the University of Oregon.
But Lukas Verzbicas is late. The lanky 18-year-old holds the kind of potential many American track fans never thought they would see again in this country. He can't get to maturity fast enough.
Verzbicas (pronounced Verz-bick-iss) is perhaps the nation's finest young runner -- and he knows it.
"If I'm the best here in high school, then that won't get me very far," he says. "The only way I can keep on improving is to have that next level's competition."
Verzbicas has the perfect runner's build: 6-0 and 135 pounds of stringy muscle. His mop of brown hair flops in the wind as he passes everyone on the track, in his peer group, in the nation. He dominated his high school peers, winning Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year twice and going since the seventh grade without losing a cross country race. On the state level, he won the 2010 3A title, completing the 3 mile-run in 13:53.7 -- the third fastest time ever in Illinois.
On the national level, Verzbicas became the first runner to win the Foot Locker Cross Country Championship and Nike Cross Nationals in the same year (2010) and the third to win the Foot Locker in back-to-back years.
"He's the best United States distance runner we've ever had," said John O'Malley, Sandburg High cross country and assistant track coach. "He achieved more than any other endurance athlete has in a year less time."
Is Lukas Verzbicas the next Alan Webb? The next Steve Prefontaine? The next Jim Ryun? Can he be the Michael Phelps of distance running? That's a question that will be asked constantly, starting now.
So he's early -- "He's just one remarkable young man," says Sandburg principal Debbie Boniface. "I'm very sorry to see him go."
And he's late -- O'Malley says Verzbicas will become even better once he quits the triathlon and devotes himself exclusively to distance running.
Lukas' mother, Rasa Verzbickiene, was a 1984 Soviet Union college champion, a Lithuanian national champion, and twice held that country's national record in the 3,000 meters. (Lithuanian women’s surnames have different suffixes than men, and 'iene' denotes she is married.)
Lukas' stepfather, Romas Bertulis, served as head coach of Lithuania's national decathlon team from 1996 to 2001. Now he is head coach of the Multisport Madness Triathlon Team (MMTT) for whom Verzbicas competes.
Rasa coaches the distance runners for MMTT's elite team.
Always running, always jumping, Verzbicas was raised on the track, exposed to the sports world as his parents took him along while coaching at camps, practices and events.
"He grew up with elite athletes," Rasa said. "He grew up in an athletic family."
Verzbicas’ early years took place in Kaunas, Lithuania. His parents left him with his grandmother in Lithuania when they looked for a better life in America, and Lukas joined them a year and a half later at the age of 8.
That was Verzbicas' first airplane flight, back in 2002. He experienced airsickness for much of the trip. But he hit the ground running.
"United States is the land of the dreams," Rasa says. "United States is the best place to be the best."
Verzbicas visited Lithuania for the first time last year, and he has only good memories of his native country, but he does not miss it. He considers himself an American and -- along with becoming an NCAA champion -- hopes to represent the country by winning a gold medal as a U.S. Olympian.
"That's the dream," Verzbicas says. "It's all coming along. Everything is working towards that goal."
That has meant skipping high school track, as the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) does not allow student-athletes to participate in non-school competitions for their sport during the season. Lukas was the equivalent of Kobe Bryant trying to play for the Lakers and for Lower Merion.
"It's really frustrating that he has to make that call," O'Malley says. "(IHSA) is kind of doing him a disservice and doing the sport a disservice by not allowing him to compete."
But oh well -- no time to haggle. Lukas is too busy breaking records. At the New Balance Indoor Nationals on March 14, he won the mile, 2-mile and 5,000-meter races and set the national record (14:06.78) in the latter. The mile and 2-mile events were separated by just 90 minutes.
That stunning triple play carries a lot of meaning for Verzbicas because he dedicated those races to Kevin McDowell, his friend and MMTT teammate, who days before the New Balance Nationals was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"It was always on mind," Verzbicas says. "It was very emotional."
While in Florida last spring, Rasa came up with the idea of an early graduation. She called Lukas, who was all for it.
"They felt that he was ready for the NCAA competition. I agree with them," O’Malley says. "I don't know what he would've gotten from another year of high school competition."
So he was early, and suddenly he was late. A guidance counselor quickly designed a rigorous schedule for him.
"It was very, very difficult," Verzbicas says. "It's a struggle trying to complete two years in one year and also be at the kind of athletic level I am."
This year he has taken seven classes per semester, including a study hall. Verzbicas enjoys English class, but found anatomy and AP macroeconomics to be more challenging. He did fine, maintaining a cumulative 3.3 GPA with a 3.5 this year.
Lukas took two semesters of summer school, which amounted to five hours of class a day for six weeks. He joked that it made for a less than ideal summer vacation.
"It was a miserable summer," Verzbicas says, "but it was very productive."
It also will put him in line with the other freshmen when he enrolls at Oregon. The 18-year-old did not start school until he was 7, which is common for Europeans but considered "behind" by American standards.
Verzbicas typically wakes up at 6 a.m. for a 5-mile run before showering and eating breakfast. He goes to class from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then to cross country or track practice until 5 p.m. The rest of the night is spent studying.
Verzbicas says he still finds time to mess around on the computer and hang out with friends. He says he is happy with his decision to accelerate his high school experience and will not miss seminal senior moments like prom.
"I've had a pretty nice teenage life," he says. "It's been an amazing three years."
But those years are about to be over. Verzbicas will graduate this month, hurrying off on his way to stardom. Oregon is waiting. The Olympics are waiting.
We're waiting, too.