Andrew Perkins: Fulfilling Promise
By Stephen Underwood (steveu)
When Andrew Perkins crossed the line at the Pepsi Invitational in Carthage, Wisconsin, 4:21.20 after the starting gun went off February 12, he not only broke the national indoor freshman mile record and sent a jolt of energy into the season, but inspired the following question in thousands of minds across the land: Who is this guy and where did he come from?
For followers of youth track, however, there is no such question. The Watertown, Wisconsin, phenom has been in the headlines off and on for years, from when he won AAU Junior Olympic titles at the age of 10 in 1999, to last summer when he claimed 1500- and 3000-meter titles from the same meet on the track that his father starred on years ago.
On Sunday he'll try and add to a long list of championships -- and break his new record -- when he runs the freshman mile at Nike Indoor Nationals. "I'm hoping to break 4:20," he said Wednesday.
Yes, the story of Andrew Perkins is one of a father coaching his young, prodigal son. But there's a few twists: Bob Perkins didn't push his son to start running, Andrew got him back into it.
"He said something like, "If you're too lazy to get out there, why should I?" Mr. Perkins said with a
laugh. "And that it was about time I got in shape."
And Dad not only has some pretty serious racing credentials himself -- he ran 1:49y and 4:08y in college back in the early 70s -- but was a successful prep coach, before getting out of teaching and coaching and into the auto restoration business. His perspective gained has allowed for Andrew's having a successful coaching trinity -- with the others being his Watertown cross-country coach Tim Gifford and track distance coach (and cross-country assistant) Kirk Wackett -- and the results showed at Carthage.
"My coaches are all really close now," Andrew said. "It's all flowing together."
The young Perkins has never really been in this kind of shape for indoor track before; in fact, he'd been
known for not really amping his season up until summer. But after a strong freshman cross-country
season under Coach Gifford -- including finishing 6th in the Wisconsin state meet and winning the
freshman/sophomore race at Foot Locker Midwest -- he took a nice break from training and was ready to run fast this winter.
"I thought I needed to lay off for a while," he said."I was a little worn out."
Following January tune-ups where he ran 4:32 and 4:29,he felt he was ready for at least 4:24 at Carthage in a race that included mostly small-college runners close to his ability. He started in 64 and 2:08, but he let his pace lag for 2-3 laps. But Perkins is nothing if not competitive. When others began to catch and pass him, he turned on his 25-second 200 speed for the last circuit and finished second.
"Andrew needs competition," said Mr. Perkins. "There, it was the perfect situation. The last 150 he really
kicked it in."
"That goal had been out there a long time," Andrew said. "But I didn't expect to break it so soon. It was
a thrill, though. I was dead tired, but getting the record gave me a lot of energy."
Impressive? Yes. A surprise? Kind of. A true revelation? No, not when you consider the big picture.
It all started when Andrew was eight, between the inspiration of both of his parents being runners and being introduced to the sport through gym class. It was actually his mom, Denise, who got him going a bit
-- she was a sub-60 440 runner in high school herself, again, back in the 70s when girls track programs
weren't the norm.
The talent was recognized, interest nurtured and soon he was running against and beating local middle-schoolers in cross-country races. Meanwhile, not only did Andrew's running get his father going
again, but Bob Perkins actually began competing as a masters runner and recorded fine times of 2:05 and 4:46 for the 800 and mile. The stint he did as a high school coach was actually way back in the late 70s, before Andrew was even born, at nearby Arrowhead HS.
Among his proteges was a 4:14 miler. Previous to that, he was an elite middle-distance runner at Drake.
The good genes, good coaching and hard work quickly transferred into success. By the summer of 99, he had run a 2:30 800 and 4:49 1500 as a 10-year-old to win the Jr. Olympic bantam races.
But proving that great success can sometimes take a circuitous route, Perkins disappeared for more than two years from track and field. His parents splitting up, interest in other sports, and other factors kept him away from the oval for most of 2000-2002. Turned out that Andrew was about as good on the hardcourt and pitching mound as he was the track.
"He's a really good basketball and baseball player," said his dad. "Even now, you don't like to leave it
where track is the only thing."
By the time he was 14, however, he was ready to get back into it and started running 7th- and 8th-grade track and cross-country in 2003 and 2004. His track races that first spring back were only a slight improvement on what he had done at age 10, hovering in the 5:00-5:02 range, but the big improvement came when the competition stiffened and his dad worked with him in the summer. At the Hershey Nationals Andrew took home the gold in the 1600 meters in 4:41.25. "I definitely ran better because of the competition," he said.
Fully back in the swing now, he had another strong year in 2004, dominating middle-school competition with mostly pedestrian times (for him), then breaking out in the summer with Coach Bob Pleticha and the Elgin Sharks and getting the double victory at nationals, with times of 4:05.55 and 8:59.20.
One thing Perkins is almost bound to hear if he continues his fine running is "the age thing." With
multiple bouts of influenza and other difficulties keeping him out of school for extensive periods of time, he missed enough days that the parochial school he was attending made him repeat 7th-grade. Having turned 16 earlier this week (March 7), he is older than most of the freshmen he'll race against Sunday. Still, he will fall easily within eligibility guidelines for the remainder of his career. He is hardly the first elite track athlete to face public scrutiny in that regard (can't turn 19 before Sept. 1 at start of senior year).
Not a high-mileage runner yet by any stretch, he has been blending speed work and 25-30 miles a wee ("but I don't really add up miles," he said). He said a key is getting a chance to work out on an "accelerator" treadmill in Madison one or two days a week which has had a dramatic effect on his leg turnover. "It tires the crap you of you," he said.
One of Perkins' greatest attributes is his range. With his solid cross-country and 3000-meter performances on one end, he also shows 54-second and 25-second 400 and 200 speed. At 5-6, 130 pounds, it's hard to predict how he'll grow physically. Most of his coaches have been good-naturedly trying to push him to embrace longer distances, but the freshman certainly made his argument for his favorite distance in Carthage.
"After the race, he said to his coach, 'Now do you believe I'm a miler?' "Bob Perkins said with a laugh.
By no means, however, is he painting his son as someone defiant to coaches ideas. "Andrew is so easy
to get along with. He knows what he has to do to get better."
Looking ahead, Perkins will actually have more indoor meets to run in Wisconsin's late season with possible matchups with Foot Locker finalists Ryan Gasper, who he trained with some last summer, and Chris Rombough.
More so than any of his championships to date, the 4:21 mile Perkins rates as his biggest thrill. There's
surely many more to come. But there's also a special place for the AAU last year. After all, it was on that
famous Drake track where his dad had burned it up 30 years earlier.