CHARLOTTESVILLE — Henry Wynne arrived at the University of Virginia in the summer of 2013. Had you asked Pete Watson then if Wynne might one day win an NCAA championship, the UVA assistant coach would have considered that a realistic possibility.
“He had all the tools,” Watson said recently, then smiled. “After he was here six months, I would have said, `Maybe not.’ ”
Talent never was an issue for Wynne, who’s from Westport, Conn., but “he didn’t do the little things,” said Watson, who works with the men’s distance runners.
“Going to bed by 11 o’clock at night instead of being up playing video games at 2 in the morning,” Watson said. “And eating was huge: He put on 10 or 15 pounds his first year here.”
In 2014, Wynne placed eighth in the mile at the ACC indoor track and field meet. Two years later, he’s another runner entirely.
“Everything’s starting to click,” Wynne said.
In January, he became the third runner in UVA history to break four minutes in the mile, running 3:58.74 in Boston. In February, at the ACC indoor meet, also in Boston, Wynne won the mile and anchored Virginia’s victorious distance medley relay team.
Then came his greatest feat. On March 12, in Birmingham, Ala., Wynne won the mile at the NCAA indoor championships, finishing in 4:06.53 — 0.12 seconds ahead of runner-up Blake Haney of Oregon.
“It was insane,” recalled Wynne, an economics major. “It was a packed stadium, the cameras were going off everywhere. The track had a spotlight on it, pretty much, so it was a cool experience.”
Wynne is only the third UVA runner to win an NCAA title, joining Paul Ereng, who won the 800-meter three times (outdoors in 1988 and ’89, indoors in ’89) and Robby Andrews, who won the 800 twice (indoors in 2010 and outdoors in ’11).
Led by Wynne and junior Filip Mihaljevic, who was runner-up in the shot put, the Cavaliers tied for eighth at the NCAA indoor championships, their best finish ever.
“We’re going in the right direction,” said Bryan Fetzer, UVA’s director of track & field/cross country.
Wynne is a major reason why. If not for an unforeseen succession of events, though, he never would have run the mile in Birmingham.
“It took 10 guys scratching just to get Henry in,” Watson said.
Runners who had qualified for the mile opted to focus on other races, Watson said. That created an opportunity for Wynne, who came to Birmingham expecting to compete in only one event: the distance medley relay.
“But once he got in,” Watson recalled, “I just said to Fetzer, `We’ve got to run him in the mile [instead of the DMR]. He can win this thing.’ ”
Wynne led for seven of the eight laps in what he and Watson predicted, accurately, would be a slow race.
“I was ready to go with anybody if somebody made a move to go fast,” Wynne said, “but if it was going to be slow, I figured I might as well just be in the front, because it’s not going to tax me too much, and it also gets you out of the clutter in the back, you don’t get tripped up or anything.”
Slow times for such championship races are not unusual, Wynne said.
“Everybody’s pretty much the same talent level, all the PRs are the same,” he said, “so nobody really wants to be the guy who goes out there and runs as hard as he can and then tires himself out and gets kicked down by everybody.”
For the final three laps, however, the runners “are pretty much just booking it,” Wynne said, “and the last one, that’s when you’re starting to tire yourself out, because you’ve been running pretty hard.
“But going into the last lap in the lead and then seeing yourself in the lead with 50 meters to go, it’s an adrenaline rush.”
Fetzer said he’s enjoyed watching Wynne develop.
“He ran that race to perfection at nationals,” Fetzer said, “and he’s learning to do something that a lot of runners are uncomfortable doing, and that’s stepping out in front, taking the lead and being in control. Most athletes struggle with that, because if you fail, people see. But if you want to be great, you’ve got to take a chance and put yourself out there.”
Wynne’s improvement at UVA has been steady.
As a sophomore, “he was a little more dedicated,” Watson said, “took care of the little things. He was running more, basically, and not being afraid to actually run mileage.”
His 2014-15 results reflected Wynne’s increased commitment. He placed 43rd at the ACC cross country meet, fifth in the mile at the ACC indoor meet, and 11th in the 1,500-meter run at the ACC outdoor championships. The 3:41.19 he ran in the 1,500 last spring ranks fourth all-time at UVA.
“His second year was much better,” Watson said, “and then outdoors when he ran 3:41, he was all of the sudden like, `Whoa, I’m good.’ ”
Another 11th-place finish in the 1,500, this time at the NCAA East Preliminaries, earned Wynne a spot at the NCAA outdoor championships in Eugene, Ore. But he struggled at the national meet — Wynne finished 22nd overall in the 1,500 — and realized he needed to train harder to compete with the nation’s elite.
“He just walked away and he was like, `Those guys, they’re men. They’re stronger than I am. I need to do more work,’ ” Watson said.
The NCAA meet, Wynne acknowledged, was “an eye-opening experience, like this is a pretty awesome thing to be able to do. So from then on out, I just got my training in and picked up the mileage a little bit in cross country. I think I’ve just been more committed this year to trying to get better and return to those big meets that I’ve had fun at so far.”
The difference in Wynne was apparent when the 2015-16 school year began.
“Normally, at least the past two years, I’ve dreaded cross country, because it’s long workouts, early mornings, that kind of stuff,” Wynne said. “This year, I’m not really sure what I changed, but I started doing well in the workouts and doing well in races, so it turned into more of a fun thing for me, because I’d be able to go out and, instead of getting 40th place in a race, I’d be contending for top 10.”
Last fall, Wynne placed 10th at the ACC cross country meet, earning all-conference honors, and then finished 59th at the NCAA championships.
“Henry was a New England cross country champion [in high school],” Watson said. “It’s not that he wasn’t good, but he loves the mile.”
Wynne said: “I have ever since high school. I just loved the mile, since that’s kind of the track event that everybody knows about.”
Growing up in Connecticut, Wynne said, his favorite sport was lacrosse, which he played through his freshman year of high school.
“Then I realized I’d probably be a better runner than a lacrosse player,” he said, smiling.
It wasn’t hard to sell Wynne on UVA, where another distance runner from Connecticut, Connor Rog, preceded him. Wynne raced against Rog when they were in high school.
Also, Wynne said, one “of our really good family friends is a graduate of UVA and loves it, and I think kind of put the idea in my head. And I had heard of UVA through lacrosse and I thought it was an awesome school.”
That Virginia track & field is growing in prominence is especially exciting, Wynne said.
“You see the program building up, and we’re competing for national titles, top-10 [status], and trying to win ACCs every year,” he said. “It’s awesome.”
So, he said, is the Cavaliers’ chemistry.
“I think that’s what’s the strongest part of the team,” Wynne said. “You see other programs around the country, and the sprinters stick to the sprinting group, the throwers don’t talk to the distance runners, and that kind of stuff. In our locker room, we’re all great friends.
“Filip will be like, `Good job with that race the other day,’ and I’ll be like, `All right, you’re going to go out to worlds and do something special.’ So it’s a nice bond we all have.”
After his NCAA title, Wynne said, “I was getting texts from every single person on the team.”
Expectations are high this spring for the UVA men, who are expected to contend for the ACC title in May. Wynne will compete outdoors for the first time in 2016 at the Florida Relays this weekend in Gainesville, Fla. He’s run in the 1,500 as well as on Virginia’s 4×800 relay team.
For Wynne, the goal this spring is “to keep progressing and getting faster,” he said, and he hopes to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in July.
“This is a big step for him now,” Watson said, “because he had a great indoor season where he was winning everything and everything was going well. Everybody knows who he is now. It’s going to be a maturity thing, seeing how he handles that pressure. I think he’s going to do great with that. I don’t think it’s going to affect him too much.
“Henry’s just matured as a leader, and it’s kind of his team now. It’s nice to have that.”