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The Prefontaine Classic has created legends. Colin Sahlman is driven to join them

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First, Colin Sahlman came for his mother’s records.

Chrystall Sahlman and her husband had noticed Colin, their oldest son, was particularly intent on pushing himself as a child, not content with participating but competing. It explained why not long after she suggested joining the Camarillo Cosmos, a youth track club near their home, the then-7-year-old became keenly interested in knowing the personal-best times run by his mother, a former collegiate middle-distance runner.

“‘How fast did you run that? 12.3 was your 100 [meters]?’ Then he was like, ‘26.4 for your 200? And 55.1 for your 400?’” Chrystall said. “He was going for my records.”

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They were just the first he would chase down.

In December, as the top runner on a dominant Newbury Park High School cross country team widely called the greatest in prep history, Sahlman broke a 21-year-old national record for 5,000 meters. In February, he became the 13th high schooler to run a mile in less than four minutes and the third-fastest to do it indoors. And Saturday, Sahlman will line up here inside Oregon’s Hayward Field alongside professionals and Olympic gold medalist Jakob Ingebrigtsen in his attempt to claim one of the most hallowed marks of all, the high-school mile — 21 years after this same meet was the backdrop for Alan Webb’s record-breaking run of 3 minutes 53.42 seconds.

Colin Sahlman, left in yellow, and teammate Lex Young train on the Newbury Park High track.

(Andrew Greif / Los Angeles Times)

“I remember thinking at the beginning of the year, I don’t even know if I can touch that,” Sahlman said. “But as the season has gone on it’s just been more and more of a reality because we’ve been doing workouts just proving that I can go out fast.”

Even more central to his record chase, the 18-year-old with the floppy mop of brown hair closes fast.

In early May on a track at San Juan Capistrano alongside professionals and collegians, Sahlman became the fourth-fastest high-schooler over 1,500 meters by running his final lap in 55 seconds. And after a difficult week of training, no less. It was the indicator Newbury Park coach Sean Brosnan needed to know a record pursuit was within reach. That feeling was emboldened two weeks later, during an 800-meter tune-up race in Walnut, when Sahlman’s kick in the last 100 meters helped him pass nearly an entire field despite windy, cold conditions.

“I was standing next to his future college coach,” said Brosnan, who coaches Newbury Park with his wife, Tanya, “and he turned to me and he’s like, ‘This guy can win NCAA titles.’ I was like, ‘Yes, he can.’

“The stars might have to align that day [in Eugene], weather and different things,” Brosnan added. “But at the end of the day there’s a difference between somebody saying they can do something and actually really believing it, or trying to convince themselves they believe it.

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“No, he does. He believes it. and he knows he can do it.”

In 2001, even before the starting gun went off at the Prefontaine Classic, Webb was already notable — the first U.S. high schooler since 1967 to run a mile in less than four minutes. Pulled along by the pace of a race won by world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj, Webb smash crushed his personal best by six seconds and surpassed Jim Ryun’s 1965 record of 3:55.3.

Newbury Park junior Colin Sahlman, left, sprints to the finish line

Newbury Park junior Colin Sahlman, left, sprints to the finish line pursued closely by sophomore teammate Lex Young in the 3,200 meters at the Arcadia Invitational on May 9, 2021.

(Steve Galluzzo / For The Times)

Going sub-four is no longer a rarity. Twelve high schoolers have accomplished the feat since 2015 and Doug Binder, the editor in chief of running and track and field outlet Dyestat.com, said he would not be surprised if one or two more broke the four-minute barrier within the next month. This year’s sub-four class includes Sahlman and Pennsylvania’s Gary Martin, whose 3:57.98 on May 15 is the fastest ever in a high school-only field.

“When I saw [Martin] do that I was shocked,” Sahlman said, “but that just sets the bar even higher to run even faster.”

Theories abound for the boom time for fast times at all levels — the men’s and women’s world records for both 5,000 and 10,000 meters each falling since 2020 — and start with improved shoe technology featuring carbon plates and thicker soles. Binder also believes the pandemic allowed for longer blocks of uninterrupted training and a heightened aggression to run fast once meets returned. Competitors can keep tabs on one another easier than ever because of social media. Brosnan believes high-school methods are becoming more advanced as they adopt professional and collegiate techniques, an argument for trickle-down sophistication that one Division I track coach agreed with.

Yet even amid a boom time for fast high schoolers, Sahlman and Newbury Park are unique in their stature as celebrities within track and field’s obsessive, if niche, fandom. Two years after Nico Young was named the nation’s top high school runner and established Newbury Park’s mystique, Sahlman, his younger brother Aaron, and Young’s younger twin brothers, Lex and Leo Young, have run times so dominating that Binder likened it to having four Steve Prefontaines on one team.

When the Panthers won California’s state cross-country title last fall with 16 points, just one off the sport’s mathematical perfect score, “they were like rock stars, like the Beatles had shown up,” Binder said.

Fans stick around after the quartet’s post-race cooldowns for autographs and selfies and subscribe to the YouTube channel run by Lex and Leo Young, whose nearly 23,000 subscribers — “No one ever really cared to watch them until we started running fast,” Lex said, shrugging — receive an insider’s look at the lives and fast times of some of the country’s fastest teenagers.

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In person and online, Brosnan has encountered fans determined to uncover any scrap of insight into the program’s workouts, saying their motivations vary from admiration to criticism. The latter can be “out of control,” he said, saying he receives sometimes dozens of messages weekly from anonymous social media and email accounts complaining to school and CIF officials that say his team’s success stems from being rich and pushing athletes too hard. He bats away such claims. He cites the fundraising he and his wife and athletes undertake to pay for the team’s month-long summertime training at Big Bear, the collegiate success of his alumni, the weekly mileage for Sahlman that has never exceeded 64 miles. Chrystall Sahlman credited the Brosnans for their guidance that has put Colin in a position that would have seemed outlandish when he joined the Cosmos a decade ago — going professional.

Sahlman said he is set on honoring his commitment to run alongside Nico Young at Northern Arizona next year, believing it the most beneficial route for what he hopes is an eventual pro career, citing the coaching and training at altitude.

“I just feel like they’re a pro group in themselves, in college,” he said.

Newbury Park's Aaron Sahlman, Leo Young, Colin Sahlman and Lex Young, from left, start the boys' 3200 meter run

Newbury Park’s Aaron Sahlman, Leo Young, Colin Sahlman and Lex Young, from left, start the boys’ 3,200-meter run at the 2022 Arcadia Invitational.

(Michael Owen Baker/Michael Owen Baker / For The Tim)

For all the focus on Sahlman within distance running, he is in the midst of perhaps the most dominant Southern California season few know about.

That could change Saturday because the mile, similar to the 100 meters, is perhaps the most approachable event in a sport whose sheer number of events, and the technicality of each, can feel daunting. The four-minute mile has cross-cultural name recognition. Anyone who has run the gym-class mile can empathize with the countdown from four laps to the final sprint, the burn of lactic acid buildup. Sahlman’s entrance in the Prefontaine Classic led enough interviewers to his high school on a recent afternoon that he had to skip his forensics class to accommodate them.

The “life-changing” fame Drew Hunter received when he broke Webb’s indoor mile prep record in 2016 wasn’t driven solely by the track obsessives who knew everything about his training, he said.

Achieving a four-minute mile? “Any Joe Schmoe can relate to that,” Hunter said.

Sahlman’s family knows him as a teen who took his friends’ senior photos on the beach. Who thinks a good afternoon is throwing the ball to the family’s dogs, Riggs and Harbor. Who is so interested in aviation that he can identify a plane by its sound passing overhead. Who went to prom last weekend.

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Sahlman still sees himself in such normal terms too. But he is also a teen who also pushed himself and hoped for a moment like this, to the point Binder says it’s accurate to say that Sahlman’s senior season is at least on par with any other in U.S. prep distance history, from Webb to Ryun, Dathan Ritzenhein, and Hobbs Kessler.

“He has to do exactly what Alan did” to break the record, said Brosnan, who knows Webb from when they both trained professionally near Portland. “Once he gets to 1,000 meters he has to start moving up and start picking people off and then that last 300 is going to be huge.”

So, potentially, will be the rainy forecast, which could create less than ideal conditions for a fast track.

The driven, perfectionist side of Sahlman’s personality his parents noticed as a child fit hand-in-glove with the Brosnans’ coaching, which for all of its technical expertise guided by Sean’s experience running professionally for a time, essentially poses one, unerring challenge: You can always run faster.

During last summer’s Big Bear retreat, Sahlman recalled Sean Brosnan wondering aloud why the Panthers couldn’t smash the prep cross country record for 5,000 meters. In December, Sahlman crushed the record by seven seconds — a mark also broken by Leo and Lex Young, who finished only two seconds behind him.

“To see what Nico [Young] did, even though people were saying, ‘Oh he’s running super fast, no one will touch him’ and even little freshman me, I was like, ‘Well, I want to beat that when I’m there,’” Sahlman said. “Here it was just like really focused on what you can do, what your limits are or if you can go past those limits. I feel like here I really channeled just perfectly.”

This is the analytical side his parents see before and after each race, in what has become a family tradition of talking through his performance. But when the invitation to race in the Prefontaine Classic was broached earlier this spring, Sahlman quickly accepted before ever consulting his parents, Chrystall Sahlman said. His mind was made up.

“With the team being so good, everybody expects them to be better than they did last time and that’s just not reality,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that he was willing to try that. It’s a big burden to carry with expectations of everyone’s eyes on him, can he do this?

“He hands down said, ‘Oh yes, I’m not going to be the best if I don’t race the best.’”

For as much as Chrystall Sahlman has told family members stunned by Colin’s running celebrity that “this is the new normal,” he is here because this is a hallmark of the way he has always been — a boy independent from the start and competitive until the end. Sahlman first heard of Webb as a junior. This year, they met him in person.

On Saturday, he hopes to pass him.

“I’ve watched his video multiple times, his 3:53,” Sahlman said. “Knowing that he did that in this Prefontaine race and that I’ll be in that same position, it’s just — I mean, that’s where the magic happens.”

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