By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — There was a time, before “everything he touched turned to gold,” as his coach puts it, when Robby Andrews could arrive at the starting line unburdened by the weight of expectations.
Those days “are long gone,” Andrews acknowledged with a smile the other day.
That’s what happens to a runner who, as a college freshman, wins an NCAA title, anchors his team to victory at the storied Penn Relays, and gets honored as the ACC’s men’s performer of the year in outdoor track.
“It was really daunting going to the U.S. junior championships, and then the world junior championships this summer,” Andrews said, “where everywhere you walk, people are expecting this great thing. I felt like they would expect, like, a world record every time I stepped on the track.”
For better or worse, that’s how it will be for him moving forward, Andrews knows, and he’s not complaining.
“I like to have a little pressure on me every once in a while,” said Andrews, who began his second year at UVa this week. “It’s really nice being the underdog, but then sometimes it’s nice to hear, ‘Oh, maybe he can do something.’ ”
Andrews, who’s from Englishtown, N.J., did more in 2009-10 than anyone could have reasonably expected. Yes, he was a phenom as a prep runner — Andrews’ time of 1:48.66 made him the first high school athlete to break 1:50 in the 800 meters — but the transition to college track isn’t always an easy one.
“I was really just going in trying to get the same times I did in high school,” Andrews recalled. “I couldn’t believe how fast I ran in high school, actually. My dad and I, we were really happy about that, so if I could come anything close to that, I would have been beyond ecstatic.’
At the suggestion of UVa coach Jason Vigilante, Andrews didn’t run cross country last fall, focusing instead on adjusting to life as a college student. When Andrews finally started competing, he became a sensation.
In indoor track, Andrews was unbeaten, and he capped the season by stunning Oregon senior Andrew Wheating, a U.S. Olympian, to win the 800 at the NCAA meet in Fayetteville, Ark.
Coming in, Wheating’s personal best in that event was more than three seconds faster than Andrews’. But Andrews, unleashing his trademark kick, caught and surged past Wheating in the last 50 meters.
Then, a month later, UVa’s team of Alex Bowman, Lance Roller, Steve Finley and Robby Andrews won the 4×800 at the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. On the final lap, Andrews overtook his new rival, Wheating, and Ryan Foster, an All-American from Penn State, to cross the finish line first.
“What impresses me more than anything is that win or loses, he’s always consistent,” Vigilante said. “He’s always the same guy. He appreciates the people that he was able to beat, and he also appreciates the win for someone who was able to beat him. You can’t say that for many people in sport.”
Those qualities helped Andrews collect another prestigious honor: the ACC’s male sportsmanship award for 2009-10. Especially impressive to the selection committee were the humility and graciousness Andrew showed in his interaction with Wheating after the 800 at the NCAA indoor meet.
Andrews, 19, has run for about as long as he can remember. His paternal grandparents were track standouts, as were his parents, Bob and Mary Andrews. Bob ran at the University of Pennsylvania. Robby’s sister, Kristin, is a sprinter/hurdler at Saint Joseph’s University.
“I’ve always been raised to show good sportsmanship,” Andrews said. “My dad, he was a high school coach for 20-some years, and he always emphasized, ‘Be a classy young man. You were raised well, you were raised right, so if you win, go and shake everyone else’s hand. Because odds are you didn’t win very easily, so they gave you a really good race, and you couldn’t have done it if it weren’t for them. And if you lose, well, then you’ve got something to learn from them, so you can only benefit from talking to them.’ “
At the NCAA outdoor championships, Wheating avenged his losses to Andrews, winning the 800 in Eugene, Ore. Andrews was second. He had won his semifinal in a scorching 1:45.54 — a personal best — and “was out of gas in the final,” Vigilante said. “I mean, it wasn’t like he was waiting back to catch Andrew Wheating later. He was cashed out.”
At the U.S. junior championships, Andrews placed second in the 800, behind Penn State’s Casimir Loxsom. At the world junior championships in Canada, Andrews earned the bronze medal, finishing in 1:47, an instant behind the second-place Loxsom (1:46.57).
“Every race happens for a reason,” Andrews said. “I like to go into a situation — not even a race, maybe a test or something — I like to go in saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to get 100 on this test.’ And going into a race, I’m like, ‘Hey, I can win this race.’ “
“About 100 times out of 100, I don’t get 100 on the test,” he said. “So, if I go into the race and I don’t win, then that’s just something I need to learn. So I’ve already learned a lot from just the past two races I’ve run. I’m a student of the sport, I guess you can say. I’m a very competitive person. I like to do the best I can do. And if that means losing a couple times, then hey, I’m more willing to do that if it benefits me in the long run.
“I’m sure Andy Wheating, he wasn’t expecting to lose those races, but it probably helped him in the long run, because this summer he’s run unbelievable. Everything happens for a reason, and I’m just going to go in with the same mindset as I did last year.”
He’s running cross country for the Wahoos this fall. Is Andrews capable of working his way into the team’s top five?
“Absolutely,” Vigilante said. “And the reason is, I think one of the neat things about Robby is he’s able to put the interests of other people before himself. He’ll want to run cross country, not because it’s a feather in his cap, but because these are his best buddies, and if he goes out and runs his hardest for his team, we’ll be better. He’s got this altruistic side.”
Ask Andrews about his goals for his second year, and he responds by talking about the Cavaliers’ prospects in cross country and track.
“I’m definitely excited about the team this year,” Andrews said. “So in my mind, if I keep the team first, then that’ll push me to do even better for myself. If I’m looking out for the team first, that means I need to get as many points for the team as possible, which means winning as many races as possible. By helping one, you help the other.”
Vigilante said: “The most important thing for me is that I don’t let him develop a set of expectations that exceeds what he’s emotionally and physically ready to do now.”
There are few athletes more accomplished than Andrews at UVa, but at 5-9, he blends into the student body, and he’s rarely recognized by strangers on Grounds. That’s fine with him.
“But it’d be cool to get the program a lot of recognition,” Andrews said. “I think we’re definitely headed in the right direction for that.”