by Tom Utescher
If runners’ singlets had numbers like uniforms in other sports, there’s one that Springside Chestnut Hill Academy would retire without hesitation.
With the departure of the Class of 2012, the local school bids farewell to phenomenal long distance dynamo Dustin Wilson, who is taking his talents on to Columbia University.
He made observers begin to take notice when he was a middle schooler. Starting out in his varsity career at 5’4” tall and 107 lbs., the diminutive Wilson didn’t get lost in the crowd simply because he was always in front of it. Each cross country and track season brought new victories and milestones.
As a senior this school year, Wilson (who has burgeoned to 5’6”, 118 lbs.) started off in September at the Briarwood Invitational, winning the event with the third fastest time ever recorded by a high school harrier (and fastest of any Pennsylvanian) on the Belmont Plateau course in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. At the end of the month he finished first at the expansive Paul Short Invitational at Lehigh University by nine seconds, and a few weeks later he claimed the Inter-Ac League title for the third year in a row, this time smashing the old course record by more than a full minute.
After repeating as the PA Independent Schools champion, he eventually earned a trip to the Footlocker Cross Country Nationals in San Diego, Calif., where he placed 13th in the country.
During the winter he faced another elite field at the New Balance Indoor Nationals, where he placed fourth in the 5000 meters with a time of 14 minutes, 55 seconds and was named an All-American.
In outdoor track this spring, Wilson capped his Inter-Ac League career by becoming the 1600 and 3200 meter champion for the third year in a row, setting a new meet record of 4:18.17 in the 1600.
“He’s the best distance runner ever to come out of the league,” stated longtime Blue Devils’ coach Paul Hines, who praised Wilson not only for his physical ability, but for his unflagging commitment to improvement.
“Of the distance runners I’ve coached,” Hines said, “Dustin immersed himself in the sport more than anyone, reading up on aspects of competition and training, communicating with people. He really understands the sport.
“I think he’s also partially responsible for raising the level of distance running in our league,” the coach went on. “That’s something that can go in cycles with the different events, and distance is a strength right now in the Inter-Ac.”
Another veteran coach in the league, Penn Charter’s Stephen Bonnie, expressed his admiration, as well.
“I think he represents our league well as a runner, as a student, and as a person,” the Quakers’ skipper said. “Sometimes there can be some resentment of an athlete of that caliber, but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t really like Dustin. He’s absolutely superhuman in his relentlessness and his natural endurance, and his ability to go through extremely difficult training without breaking down. Part of it is natural ability, as with any elite athlete, and part of it is his work ethic and effort, which are legendary.”
From kindergarten up through fourth grade Wilson attended Episcopal Academy, then changed over to what was then Chestnut Hill Academy. When confronted with the school’s athletic activity requirement as he reached the sixth grade, he felt no particular familial influence when selecting a sport. His father ran track briefly in high school, but that was about as far as his athletic pedigree extended.
One of the smallest boys in his class, he reasoned, “I would’ve gotten broken if I’d played football, and I didn’t have the agility for soccer. Apparently, everyone played soccer when they were a kid, except for me. I would’ve had to learn a lot of things that other guys already knew.”
Pretty much by default, he chose cross country and track.
Coach Hines remembered, “In seventh grade he began to make an impression as someone who has ability.”
A year later, he was taking part in high school varsity events.
“He has a lot of stamina,” Hines said. “He doesn’t have a lot of fast-twitch muscle [common among sprinters and jumpers] in him; he’s more of a grind-it-out distance kind of guy. He’s been able to build strength by running the mile, and by getting stronger he does get some speed.
“He actually has deceptive speed,” the coach went on. “He won the 800 at the league championships two years in a row, and this year in the Inter-Ac mile he ran the first two laps in 2:13 and then closed it out in 2:04. He’s got some speed, but it’s got to be in a prolonged kick, rather than a burst in the final 100 meters. In college he’ll probably be more of a 5000 and 10,000 meter guy.”
In his first varsity cross country season in 2007 Wilson, an eighth-grader, placed eighth overall at the Inter-Ac League championships. He was the second finisher for the Blue Devils behind senior teammate Ned Cunningham, who placed third. Malvern Prep junior Matt McCullough won that race, and he repeated as league champion the following year, but this time Wilson was the runner-up, nine seconds off of the winner’s pace.
In indoor competition that winter, he earned a place in the spotlight on a much grander stage. At the Nike Indoor Nationals in Boston, Wilson won the freshman mile with a time of four minutes, 32.61 seconds.
In the spring, he would battle Malvern’s McCullough in outdoor track. Early in the season, Wilson won a finishing sprint between the two in a relay event, but the Malvern standout came back to win both the 1600 and 3200 meter races in the regular-season dual meet between the Devils and Friars. At the Inter-Ac championships they split the difference, with Wilson taking the 1600 and McCullough winning the longer race.
From eighth grade to ninth grade, Wilson had lowered his time in the mile from five to four-and-a-half minutes, and the year after that he took another 10 seconds off his PR in the event.
From 10th grade on, he would rule the Inter-Ac in the 1600 and 3200. At the Inter-Ac meet in his sophomore year he was pushed hard in the 800 meters, but nipped Episcopal Academy’s Jack Freese at the finish. Back in 1992, Penn Charter’s Shawn Morgan had won all three distance races for the first time in the history of the Inter-Ac championship meet, which dates back to 1887. Wilson had matched that feat as a 10th-grader, and he did it again in his junior year. He did not enter the 800 meter race at the 2012 meet, content to win the two longer contests while setting a new Inter-Ac record in the 1600.
It was midway through high school that he committed himself to pursuing a running career that would extend into college.
“I had a stress fracture [in the right shin] at the end of my sophomore year, and I trained straight through it over the summer,” he said. “In the fall, my first real race coming back was the Paul Short, where I came in third. I remember thinking that I had put all of this effort into the sport, and I couldn’t see myself not doing it at a higher level after that.”
Hines was always there to help him progress towards his short-term and long-term goals.
“Coach Hines absolutely knows what he’s doing,” Wilson said of the Blue Devils’ ringmaster, a former high school and college runner who is still a regular in the Boston Marathon. “Every situation that somebody on the team might encounter – he’s seen it before.
“Most of the time he’d give me the flexibility to train according to the way my body felt,” Wilson went on. “Other times he’d say we’re doing so-and-so, and I wouldn’t be sure if that was the right workout at that time. Now I’ve come to the point where I say, okay, I’ll just do exactly what he says, and it’ll be fine.”
Wilson, in his turn, was committed to the success of the team, not just to strictly personal goals. In the indoor and outdoor track seasons during his junior year, he ran the 1600-meter anchor leg for the Blue Devils’ impressive distance medley relay (DMR) team, which included seniors Michael Fuery, Ian Miller, and Tate Sager. To do so, he had to forego some high-profile individual races in which he probably would have done very well.
“He realized he had the ability to take our DMR to the national level,” Hines explained. “The other guys in the relay knew what he was sacrificing, and they all worked hard to bring their times down. That was our first relay to get to the national level indoors and outdoors.
“At the [New Balance] indoor nationals,” Hines continued, “he ran a 4:13 and helped us qualify for the outdoor meet with a 10:31. Two days later he was in the slow heat in the two-mile and ran 9:12, so he was fifth overall and was named an All-American.”
At the outdoor national meet in June down in Greensboro, N.C., the CHA foursome was slotted in the slow heat, but finished up 10th overall in 10:15.49, a time which brought them within nine seconds of designated All-American status.
For his anchor leg, Wilson said he received the baton roughly 10 seconds behind the frontrunners, and he recounted, “By the bell lap I was right with the leaders, and then I just pulled away from them coming around the bend. That was the proudest moment in my athletic career so far.”
“Going 10:15 was phenomenal for a school of our size,” Hines said, “and it was the second-fastest time for any Pennsylvania school last year, by less than one second.”
Despite the hours of extra-curricular training Wilson did, he never fell behind in the classroom, attracting interest from a number of Ivy League universities and other prestigious schools.
Asked about his favorite academic pursuits, Wilson responded, “I think you’d have to say math and science. I took three math courses and one science course this year, which is two-thirds of my curriculum, so that kind of tells you.”
Nevertheless, one of the reasons he chose Columbia is that he’ll be able to start out in a broad-based liberal arts program before he focuses in on a major. Of course, it didn’t hurt that during his college visit he was introduced to the university’s president, Lee C. Bollinger, a running enthusiast himself.
Starting out afresh at the collegiate level should be a liberating experience for Wilson, according to Hines.
“One of the things that will benefit Dustin,” he noted, “will be that there will be people who are better than he is, so he won’t have to do the grind of leading the workouts all the time. On our team we had people who could stay with him for awhile, but nobody who could really push him on an extended basis. For the last couple years in our league meets, and even at most of the bigger invitationals, everybody sat back on Dustin and he had to set the pace.”
Wilson said that early in his college career he expects “I’ll be running cross country, obviously, and in track I think I’ll be doing the 3000 and 5000 [meters indoors], and the 5k outdoors. I probably won’t do the 10k until I get a better mileage base.”
“I think CHA did a great job of preparing me for any challenge that will be presented to me next year,” he reflected. “It’s been a great place. I met people I’m probably going to be friends with for the rest of my life.
“To my knowledge,” he went on, “there are very few places that are as supportive. You’ll find something there that you really enjoy, you’ll get involved, and you’ll feel like part of something bigger than yourself, no matter who you are.”
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