By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
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By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
Here's how you go about getting an interview with the nationally respected coach of the University of Colorado's best hope for a national title this fall: Walk into his windowless ground-floor office, sit down on the only chair and say, "Hey, coach. What's new?"
Don't be ridiculous: This isn't the Buffs' celebrity drillmaster, Gary Barnett, who is kept hidden behind Byzantine layers of football assistants, media officers and institutional importance. That's not the style of Mark Wetmore, the wisecracking, ponytailed New Jersey native who guides the university's top-ranked, defending-champion cross-country team. The CU football team's every move might be analyzed as closely as an Alan Greenspan facial tic, but if you really want real athletic drama and brilliance, Wetmore's is the team to watch.
You wouldn't know it from the crowds, of course. On the same day the gridiron Buffs were hand-delivering their claim for a national title to cross-state rivals CSU in front of 70,000 fans, the university's runners were kicking off their season with a time trial observed by fifty or so die-hard followers. Following a tradition that most college football squads would find baffling, the team's veterans slowed down at the end of the run and allowed a newcomer -- a walk-on freshman from California named Casey Burchill -- to win the race.
As good as Burchill is, it's unlikely that he'll see the tape again this year. The CU runners, who edged Stanford by a history-making single point at last year's NCAA finals, are returning three of the nation's best. And as recently as last week, the number of bona fide stars was four. A day after the time trial, though, Dathan Ritzenheim, a wispy, adolescent-looking sophomore who is probably the best distance runner to come out of an American high school since Dean, Liddy and Haldeman played front line for Nixon, announced he had suffered a season-ending leg injury.
Ritzenheim, who last year finished a remarkable fourth in the NCAA cross-country finals as a freshman, was heavily recruited out of high school by running factories Michigan and Oregon. Yet he says he was drawn to Boulder instead by the team's tight-knit and easygoing upperclassmen. "The guys -- not so much as a team, but as people -- were awesome," he says. "It was an easy decision."
That cohesiveness was demonstrated right away when Ritzenheim was invited to live in the Fight Club, a sprawling six-bedroom pad badly in need of landscaping work perched on the edge of Boulder Canyon. The house has served as the unofficial headquarters of the cross-country team's talent core ever since it was purchased three years ago for that purpose by the Torres twins.
The Torres brothers, of course, would be Jorge and Edwardo, the heart of the Colorado harriers and the primary reason the Buffs are favored to win it all again. Born ten minutes apart, the two had been tearing up cross-country courses across the Midwest for a half-dozen years before moving to the Rocky Mountains. "They're two guys who simply have a love for running," says Wheeling (Illinois) High School cross-country coach Mark Saylor. "That's all they ever wanted to do."
The youngest of five sons of a suburban Chicago jeweler, the boys grew up quickly, drawn into the family business at an early age. Jorge began competitive running in sixth grade -- not long before he fired his first employee, at age thirteen. "I asked my brother Dan what I should do for a sport," he recalls, "and he suggested cross-country." The twins seldom did anything without the other, and Edwardo began running after his brother.
Running didn't agree with Jorge at first. "I would go to practice every other day, cut courses," he remembers. In retrospect, he says it was no surprise when his junior high school coach cut him from the state team. "But that pissed me off," he says. That winter, he ran and ran. The following year, he won a national title for junior high students, and, with very few exceptions, he hasn't had to follow another runner since.
Anger has always worked well for Jorge. After placing second in the Illinois state championships his freshman year, he vowed to win it the next time around, and he did. And then did it twice more for good measure. Along the way, he became the first schoolboy runner ever to qualify for four straight annual Foot Locker national championship races, the last of which, in 1998, he won, setting a course record.
Saylor says that in addition to Jorge's being born to run, his drive made him a coach's dream. "He just wanted to be so good that it didn't take much to work with him. Some other kids complain: 'It's too hot; I'm tired; I don't want to run fast today.' With Jorge, it was always, 'Okay, now what?'"
Colorado has enjoyed a reputation as a runner's haven for more than a decade. With so many top runners deciding to call Boulder home -- Frank Shorter and Mark Plaatjes, to name two -- Wetmore points out that "there's no better place to be a distance runner than Boulder." The university's program, too, has built itself by accumulation, one fast runner at a time. The Torres brothers had heard of Steve Slattery, now a four-time All-American track athlete, so they decided to check out CU. Ritzenheim, in turn, knew of the Torreses: "Having them here was a big draw for me."