Record-Holding Olympic Runner Takes Long-Distance Route to Catholic Church
Alan Webb is drawn by the Eucharist and inspired to pursue ‘eternal Gold.’
Jim Ryun’s record in the high school mile stood for 36 years as the standard for young runners. Some thought the time would never be broken, but even those who thought it could be, were shocked to see how dramatically it was broken on May 27, 2001 in Eugene, Oregon.
That was the day high school senior Alan Webb obliterated Ryun’s previous mile record of 3:55.3. In a sport where winners can be determined by tenths or even hundredths of a second, Webb ran almost two full seconds better than Ryun, posting a new mark of 3:53.43, which still stands today.
Webb went on to compete for the University of Michigan, winning the Big Ten Championship in cross country and the 1,500 meters in the spring track season. He later won gold medals in the 2004, 2005 and 2007 USA Outdoor Championships in the 1,500 meters and competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Webb, who has four daughters and converted to Catholicism in 2017, is currently the assistant cross country coach and track distance running coach University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He recently spoke of his running career, the spiritual parallels of sports, and the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Your specialty was the 1,500 meters, so which runners do you think have the best shot at medaling in this year’s Olympic Games?
I think Cole Hocker and Matthew Centrowitz have the best shots. Hocker, who is only 20, recently won the U.S. Trials in the 1,500, while Centro, who won the Olympic gold medal in 2016, finished second. It should be a lot fun to watch what happens in Tokyo with them.
What was your own Olympic experience like?
I was able to compete at the 2004 Games in Athens but did not make any further Olympic teams. I had problems with injuries and didn’t perform as well as I wanted to. That meant, among other things, not making the 2008 Olympic squad.
That was devastating at the time, but now that I’m Catholic I can look back and not only accept what happened, but be thankful for it. We all suffer in one way or another, so the big question is, not whether it will happen, but how we will respond to it. The Catholic Church has a wealth of information on how to do that well — to suffer with grace and even transform the suffering into joy.
Running was my idol, so if I had been able to medal at the Olympics, it might have been my undoing. In the Old Testament it even mentions making gods out of precious metals. That brings to mind Olympic medals, which are made from bronze, silver and gold. It’s not that medals are inherently evil, and certainly sports aren’t inherently evil either, but we can easily get carried away and give them an unreasonable status.
Taken in the right way, sports can be a great help toward being great people. They can enhance discipline, stewardship, teamwork, endurance and a fighting perseverance. Being physically fit is not just a matter of having a highly-functioning body; it can be a matter of thinking more clearly and making better decisions — decisions that can affect our eternal destiny.
Of all the sports to participate in, what drew you to running?
I swam, played soccer and played basketball, but running was what I excelled at most early on. I remember fourth-grade gym class was the first point at which our mile runs were timed, and that got me to thinking of going faster and faster.
I liked the purity of the sport — that finish lines and time clocks don’t lie. The time you ran was the time you ran, without the subjective element found in some other sports. That simplicity inspired me to cross-train. Whereas some people might see all the exercise I did as work, I found it to be so much fun to get stronger and faster. I just ended up taking it a little too far.
Did you have a philosophy reminiscent of UCLA Basketball Coach John Wooden, of simply trying to be the best you can be, or did you want to be the best?
It was a little bit of both. I started wanting to do my best, but as time went on, I found that my best was the best for my class, then my whole school, then the whole state. I was competitive but also knew that, in the final analysis, the only thing I had control over was my own preparation.
Did you plan in detail how you’d break the longstanding high school mile record time or did that just happen unexpectedly?
Similar to the previous question, it was a little bit of both. I wanted to break the four-minute mark in the mile, but when I broke the all-time record, I was just as shocked as anyone else at the race. I did not enter it with the intention of setting a new mark, but I can also look back and see that a lot of my preparation over the preceding months paid off.
In the transition from junior to senior year, I had made the decision to, not just train hard, but do the extra things that don’t come easily to teenagers. I decided to eat healthy food every day and get enough sleep every night. Those are pretty boring things, but they did result in better times and, ultimately, in the best mile-time ever for a high-schooler.
You didn’t grow up Catholic, but it sounds like you had some Catholic ideals in sacrificing some things for the sake of more important ones.
I was baptized Episcopalian but for most of my life I’d say my idol was running. That was what I worshipped and valued the most, the thing that I would give up other things for. Everything was geared toward running better and better times.
My wife, Julia, helped to get me out of that all-or-nothing mindset. I met her through a running friend. I slowly grew to understand the Catholic teachings on the sanctity of marriage and procreation. I respected Julia and the Church, but by the time we were married in 2010, I wasn’t totally Catholic yet myself.
Julia would give soft encouragement to become Catholic but she never tried to force me into it. It had to be my decision, but I needed someone to be present me with what I would be deciding about. Catholics have to show non-Catholics what the faith is, so they can accept it, reject it, or continue to ponder it and ask more questions.
Now that I’m completely in the Church, I thank God every day for my wife Julia, who was the conduit for me entering the fullness of the faith, and I thank God for our four daughters, who are the fruit of sacramental love. I gratefully and joyfully realize there is no better place for me to be
Did you read any books that helped you into the Church?
Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic by David Currie addresses the common Protestant objections to Catholicism. It was written in exactly the way I needed an apologetics book to be written. It answered my concerns about the Bible, authority, the Real Presence, salvation and Mary. I was able to mentally pull it all together and see how the Catholic Church is not man-made, but the original church started by Jesus Christ.
There was also Reasons to Believe by Scott Hahn and more recently, The Fulfillment of All Desire by Ralph Martin. Yet I probably wouldn’t recommend the latter one for Protestants; that’s more for practicing Catholics who want to delve deeper into Catholicism.
That’s what I was doing with an online men’s group. We read Ralph’s book and discussed it, and we even had Ralph participate in one of our meetings. It’s one thing to toss around ideas about a book with other readers, but when you have the author himself there, it takes the meeting to another level.
I’ve also found Lighthouse Catholic Media CDs to be helpful. The two that come to mind most immediately are from Father Michael Schmitz and Bishop Robert Barron. They have talks on things that are highly important today, such as the distinction between objective and subjective truth.
Instead of trying to conform ourselves to God’s standard, we tend to make our own desires into a standard. We confuse subjectivity with objectivity, as if other people and things are supposed to change so that we can use them for our own purposes.
Now I’m learning more about how Vatican II was widely misrepresented. We tend to think of Mass in English with the priest facing the people, laypeople reading and distributing Holy Communion, etc. as being the norm, but it isn’t. What is often attributed to Vatican II is in fact not even mentioned in any of the Council’s documents.
When you were competing, did you know of any Catholic runners?
Early on in my career, I was in a different world mentally, where, even if I did see Catholic runners, it probably wouldn’t have impressed me. Later in my career, though, I learned about Philip Rivers, who did impress me. He became my standard for what a Catholic athlete should be.
Philip used his God-given talent to play well on the field and use the attention he got to give credit back to God. It’s not like he was great all on his own; anyone’s abilities are gifts from God that are meant to be used for the glory of God.
Philip having nine children testifies to his love for family. A lot of couples are afraid of having large families, but it’s a matter of letting go of our own desire to control everything and be open to what God, who actually does control everything, wants to happen for us.
I read that your wife ran a half-marathon while pushing one of your babies in a stroller. I started thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Is that something you’d recommend people “don’t try at home” or on the road?
It does scare some people and it’s not something I’ve done or would do, but Julia thought it would be a way to show that you can be athletic and pro-life at the same time. The stroller she used was made especially for running, but yes, bringing the baby along does require a lot of pre-planning.
Also, because newborns are especially vulnerable to injuries [something that the Buffalo Bills’ Mitch Morse witnessed in his own family], the baby has to be at least six months old. The overall purpose was to be publicly pro-life, so obviously the baby should be at the center of that and be well taken care of.
Also, a runner can certainly be pro-life without pushing a stroller during a race. That’s what Julia and I have done with Pat Castle of Life Runners, a group we’ve been representing.
Sam Guzman’s The Catholic Gentleman has a chapter on appropriate attire, and complete books such as Dressing with Dignity by Colleen Hammond and Worthy of Wearing by Nicole Caruso are attempts to bring modesty back into style. Obviously a runner can’t wear a suit and tie during a race, but have you thought of modesty in the context of running?
I have thought of it and, even though I haven’t come to detailed conclusions, I certainly agree that modesty is needed.
The big question with dressing for any context is, “What is my goal in wearing these clothes?” Some people might be trying to look presentable for a job interview, others might be trying to draw attention to themselves from prospective mates, and others might be trying to run fast races.
In the context of running, everyone understands that excess material can hold you back, but it’s possible to take that to an extreme. Sometimes wearing less can be a matter of, not performance enhancement, but vanity enhancement.
Showing off is never a good reason to wear any set of clothes; we should always have the best in mind for ourselves and our neighbors, rather than bring their attention to places it shouldn’t be brought. We should be able to run comfortably, quickly and modestly, all at the same time, bearing in mind that the most important standard is God’s.
You were gradually conforming yourself to God’s standard as you entered the Church.
Usually the term “call” is used with the priesthood or religious life. However, before those specific vocations are addressed, we all have to respond to God’s call to enter his Church. For a lot of Catholics, that is taken care of by their parents who decide to have them baptized, but for non-Catholics like I was, it’s a process.
Every time I would learn something new about the Church, I would basically answer God with a “Yes.” Then I would do it again with another element of the faith, and then later again. It was a long series of “Yeses” that resulted in me entering the Church in 2017.
My previous goal was to be the best runner I could be. Now my goal is to be the best Catholic I can be. That is, in the final analysis, the only thing that matters.
It brings to mind Kobe Bryant’s death. He came back to the Church of his youth and ended up dying with his daughter after having taken her to Mass earlier that morning. Early deaths are always sad, but I’m still inspired by how he seemed to go out so well-prepared spiritually. That’s the ideal last day for anyone: receiving Jesus in Holy Communion while in a state of grace.
Salvation is a race that, if run with humble and faithful perseverance, will be a guaranteed victory. One of the best things about it is that, unlike other races, we can all be winners at the same time. We can all get gold medals, so to speak. I’m aware of my own weaknesses, but I also know that with prayer and the sacraments, we can do all things in Christ.
I’ve been drawn to the Eucharist, Christ himself, who gives us the grace to fight the good fight and run the race of salvation. I’m looking forward hopefully to the beatific vision and seeing those who have been helping me get there, such as the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Bridget, St. Gabriel, St. John Paul II, and Blessed Alan de la Roche.
In heaven, happiness is superabundant. Everyone is a winner, so now my major goal is to get there and bring as many other people as possible with me.