Philip Hall's goals of participating in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials and qualifying to compete in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are admittedly ambitious.
They're just as calculated, like the strategies he employs to win distance races as a Terry Sanford High School freshman and member of the Fayetteville Flyers.
Hall, 15, ranks first nationally among ninth-graders with a time of 4 minutes, 21 seconds in the mile, and sixth in his class with a 1:57.25 in the 800 meters. He enters this weekend's 4-A East Regional at West Johnston High School as the top seed in both events, and the No. 3 seed in the 3,200 meters.
Hall, who has been dealing with a sore Achilles this week, finished first in all three races at the recent Mid-South Conference championship meet.
"Every year has sort of helped build my confidence," Hall says while being interviewed during a break in Monday's practice. "If you had asked these questions last year, I probably would have said going into high school that I was not going to be that competitive or maybe be average for just being a freshman. Now, at this point, I think I can pretty much compete with anyone in the state."
There's no cockiness in that declaration. While the slender, 5-foot-10 Hall catches his breath in the infield of the Reid Ross Classical School track, he speaks softly but with an ease and analytical skill foreign to many teenagers.
He started running competitively 4 1/2years ago, after people noticed that he'd always outpace his youth football teammates as they jogged around a nearby baseball field at practice, and he's already a three-time national track champion. Who's to say he won't develop into an Olympic-level talent in four more years?
The confidence-boosting breakthrough occurred last summer in Wichita, Kan., where Hall won youth boys division gold medals in the 800, 1,500 and 4x800 relay at the USATF National Junior Olympics. His victory by six-hundredths of a second over Joseph Gorsche in the 800 showed the value in developing a pre-race strategy and following through with it.
Hall was familiar with Gorsche from previous national events and knew Gorsche normally fared well in 400 meter races. Hall and his father, Andre, decided on a plan to start pushing the pace early in the 800, with about 500 meters remaining, because trying to outkick a relatively fresh Gorsche at the end wouldn't work.
Hall moved ahead at his designated point of attack and started his kick with 300 meters left. With 100 to go, both runners were exhausted, and Gorsche wasn't able to overtake Hall.
"When you have a conversation with kids about what their practice plans are, what the strategy is, he will go home that night and think about it, work it out and figure out exactly how it's going to work for him," says Terry Sanford coach Gerri Williams, who also worked with Hall at Max Abbott Middle School. "He'll come back and say, 'Coach, can we do this, this and this?' Yes is normally the answer. He's so into it and so passionate about his sport."
Sometimes that passion conflicts with the patience needed to keep big-picture goals in perspective. Hall is thrilled that his father obtained tickets to attend this summer's Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., where the late Steve Prefontaine was a star for Hall's beloved Oregon Ducks. The automatic qualifying standard in the 1,500 is 3:39, 35 seconds faster than Hall's time at the 2011 Junior Olympics.
Coaches remind Hall that he has years to make the improvement necessary to contend for an Olympic berth as a college underclassman. Take the case of high school senior Marcus Dickson, whose time of 4:05 in the mile ranks first among prep runners this outdoor season. His best time as a freshman was 4:41.
Hall keeps track of other distance stars such as Matt Centrowitz, who turned pro after his junior season at Oregon and will be among the headliners in a deep group of 1,500 runners at this year's Olympic trials.
"I know it's a big goal and a hard goal, but it's more setting a plan of how much time we're going to drop each year that hopefully, by the time I'm a freshman in college, I can be pretty solid," Hall says. "I don't know If I'll make the Olympics, but it's definitely a goal I'll shoot for."
Asked to name his son's hobbies, Hall's father says track occupies the top three spots on the list. Last weekend, not far-removed from the conference championships, Hall ran eight miles Saturday and six more Sunday.
He says running provides stress relief and brings him joy, but there's no smile on his face Monday when he's hunched over, gasping for air, after a set of 400 meter repeats.
"I like competing, and I like winning," Hall says. "If somebody came out and watched me practice, you can tell I really don't enjoy practicing. It's not meant to be fun. It's meant to provide fun for later, when you race. That's the whole point of practice. Results are fun."
Staff writer Bret Strelow can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3513.
Track and field regionals
When: Saturday, starting at 10 a.m. (field events) and 1 p.m. (running finals)
Where: West Johnston High School
County athletes to watch: Terry Sanford's Philip Hall (distance), Terry Sanford's Jahmaal Daniel (sprints), Terry Sanford's John Leonard (throws), South View's Darlene Girardeau (sprints, jumps), South View's Chinyere Bell (throws), South View's Josh Crawford (distance), Jack Britt's Diondre Butler (long jump, relay), Jack Britt's Emani Little (distance), Pine Forest's Shirlee Evans (jumps)
When: Saturday, starting in the morning (field events) and early afternoon (running finals)
Where: Reid Ross Classical School
County athletes to watch: Westover's Qizeah Jackson (sprints, high jump, relay), Douglas Byrd's Frank Quarles (long jump, running, relay), Douglas Byrd's Chris Jones (throws), Douglas Byrd's Chase Helton (distance, relay), Douglas Byrd's Naomi Alston (running, relay), Douglas Byrd's Olivia Lowman (running, relay), Douglas Byrd's Carlecia Spivey (long jump)