How much of a difference can three seconds make? Well, if you're referring to overcooking a roast or being late for work, probably not much. However, if you're talking about the amount of improvement in a one-lap footrace, it can mean the difference between obscurity and no less than twenty-seven interested NCAA track programs – the number of collegiate solicitors Key West senior R.J. Anderson heard from after lowering his 400m time from his 2004 best of 51.31 to 48.58 last month.
Think that's being in high demand? Well, after Anderson's extra-special burst of panache this weekend, his phone may never stop ringing.
Anderson, who only started running competitively a year ago, opened his season on March 1st with a 50.54 win in a meet against Ransom Everglades – a stirring performance, to be sure, but not a shocking one. He then stepped up to the 800m on March 8th in a meet against Gulliver Prep and won in 1:59.84 (in relays, he has recorded splits as fast as 1:57). But it was at the Crusader Invitational in Miami five days later that Anderson threw down his first genuine eye-opener, hammering out that 48.58 one-lapper that put him 15 meters clear of his closest rival and pushed him into the upper echelon of Florida's always-venerable slate of long sprinters.
On April Fool's Day, Anderson traveled with his Conch mates to Alabama for the Mobile Challenge of Champions, on e of the Southeast's top meets every year. There, Anderson's 49.39 placed him fifth overall and first among Sunshine State competitors. At the Westminster Academy Invitational on April 9th, Anderson again remained on the sunny side of the 50-second barrier, winning by nearly a second in 49.11. At the 2A District 16 Championships five days later, Anderson ran the anchor leg on Key West's victorious 4 x 800m relay squad, which recorded a sterling 8:11.92. He then blazed a 48.89 in the open 400m, winning by 20 meters, and to close out a day of relay dominance on the part of the Conchs – which also won the 4 x 100m – he anchored the 4 x 400m team (3:25.12) to a huge, four-second win. Anderson's efforts helped propel the victorious Conchs to a total of 213.5 points, 30.5 more than runner-up Belen Jesuit. (Key West also won the team crown in 2004, with Anderson taking the 200m title in 22.76; amazingly, the then-junior was not a member of the winning 4 x 400m contingent, instead leading off for the fourth-place 4 x 800m team.)
That spate of brilliance set the table for this weekend's 2A Region 4 action in Fort Lauderdale. In the same meet last year, Key West finished a distant second to Glades Central, 153-96. There, Anderson ran a wind-hampered preliminary heat of the 200m in 23.19 – missing the finals by one spot. This year, however, promised a different brand of karma, and sure enough, Anderson delivered a 47.47 win, besting Glades Central's Alric Arnett by 1.10 seconds and setting a personal best by 1.11 ticks – an astounding leap for a runner already scratching at the door of national-class standing. (At the time of this writing, that mark was believed to be Florida's fastest schoolboy time in 2005.) Earlier in the day, Anderson had anchored the 4 x 800m team to third place; to close out the meet in thrilling fashion and cement the Conchs' third-place overall team finish, Anderson ran down Arnett inches from the line of the final leg of the 1600m relay to give Key West a school record and a four-hundredths of a second edge, 3:18.86-3:18.90. His split was a spectacular 46.2, dimming the glow of Arnett's 47.4, a superb effort in its own right.
Anderson attributes his fantastic improvement this season to a combination of improved endurance and technique work. In addition to playing soccer last fall ("Just for fun; I'm not that good at it" the unassuming athlete says), he ran varsity for the Conch cross-country team, placing 10th in the Monroe County Championships last fall. Last summer, Anderson attended a track and field camp in Vermont, where he learned the importance of form drills, plyometrics, and general leg strength. He obviously hasn't forgotten much of what he picked up.
Anderson heads into next week's 1A/2A FHSAA Championship as the top seed in his event, with Arnett and the Glades Central 4 x 400m foursome sure to seek individual and relay payback respectively. He'll also again run the anchor leg of the 3200m relay. Beyond that, Anderson hopes to wind up at a college – most likely in Florida – at which he's not a big fish at a small pond, but is challenged by the presence of superior athletes. But at the rate he's dropping his times, superior quarter-milers at any level may soon be very hard to come by.