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Young distance runner goes from zero to É gold

Nathan Mathabane, 12, is the new U.S. champ in the 800

For Nathan Mathabane, the best thing about winning an event at the national Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships was the celebration that followed.

'We got to go to Disney World,' says Mathabane, an incoming seventh-grader at West Sylvan Middle School. 'That's a fun place.'

Mathabane, 12, won the 800 meters and finished second in the 1,500 in the midget class (for 11- and 12-year-olds) two weeks ago in Miami.

His victory in the 800 capped a magical 12 months in which he went from being soundly beaten in virtually every race to winning a gold medal before about 7,000 fans at Miami's Tropical Park Stadium.

'Nathan's made incredible progress, especially for someone who wasn't having a good time with the sport just a year ago,' says his coach, Fernando Fantroy Sr. 'Last year, his main comment to me was, 'I suck at this.' Now, he's a national champion. It's amazing.'

'Being a national champion is neat,' Mathabane says, 'but I don't feel different or anything. But I'm definitely looking forward to running a lot more.'

Mathabane moved to Oregon in early 2002 when his family relocated from North Carolina. He got involved in track by following his sister Bianca's lead. Bianca Mathabane will be a freshman at Benson. She finished fifth in the 100 hurdles at the national meet.

As an 11-year-old, Nathan Mathabane frequently finished last in track meets. At the Junior Olympic state meet, he was last in the 1,500 and finished second from the bottom in the 800 against generally older competition.

His times were slow, too.

Fantroy tried to get him to run 2 minutes, 30 seconds in the 800, but his best times were just 2:45.

Things began to change in the fall, though, when West Sylvan challenged its students to ride their bikes to school for one week. Mathabane rode 3.2 miles up and down hills just for a one-way trip. He enjoyed it so much that he rode his bike to school nearly every day thereafter and rode 77 miles to the coast during a biking event.

That training helped him start to win races as a cross-country runner.

'Once he got a little confidence, everything about his running changed,' Fantroy says. 'He got a great training base last fall, and that helped him tremendously in track.'

Mathabane won state and regional titles in the 400, 800 and 1,500 this year, but he entered the national meet as a decided underdog to win, mostly because his primary competition, Connor Revord of Illinois, already had set a national record in the 1,500 in the bantam age-group (9-10) and had never lost.

Mathabane's strategy in the 800 final was to go out fast, get the lead and hold off the field, but he was only fifth after 400 meters.

'That's when I just started sprinting, and I didn't stop until the finish line,' he says.

He reeled in the pack and caught Revord in the final 10 feet.

'We have video of it, and it's a thrilling race to watch,' says his father, Mark Mathabane, who is a freelance writer and author of eight books on race relations and South Africa. 'It's lucky he caught (Revord) at the end because that didn't give him a chance to rally.'

Nathan Mathabane won the 800 in 2:12.25. He finished second to Revord in the 1,500 in 4:38.65.

As a seventh grader, Mathabane hopes to lower his times to 2:02 in the 800 and 4:20 in the 1,500. He says he plans to attend Benson High in two years.

If he performs well enough next year, he might get to Disneyland, because the Junior Olympics are on the West Coast, July 27-Aug. 1, at Hayward Field in Eugene.