Orlando Kissner, Getty Images
U.S. runners Josh McAdams, left, and Michael Spence celebrate their gold and silver medals in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Pan American Games.

Maybe Josh McAdams — a k a The Hobbit — doesn't look the part, but he has suddenly become one of the top young distance runners in the world.

This was underscored at the USA championships in Indianapolis last month when he used a stinging kick to win the 3,000-meter steeplechase and defeat American record holder Daniel Lincoln handily. Afterward, when he was interviewed for the stadium audience, he was referred to as "John" McAdams. McAdams corrected the interviewer, and the man apologized, to which McAdams replied, "That's OK; I'm a nobody."

Not anymore. McAdams went on to win the Pan American Games in Brazil, and his shoe sponsor, New Balance, gave him a raise. Just like that, his plans for optometry school were put on hold. He is unbeaten by an American this year and ranks 12th in the world in the steeplechase.

Next stop: The World Track and Field Championships in Osaka, Japan, on Aug. 26.

After McAdams won the Pan Am race, the inevitable comparisons began. "You remind me a lot of Henry Marsh," national team coaches told him. McAdams is often compared to the four-time Olympian, who, like McAdams, walked on at BYU and became an All-American in the steeplechase.

Marsh and McAdams share another similarity: Both have relatively stocky, shorter builds by distance-running standards. McAdams checks in at 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, looking more like a wrestler (which he once was) than a steeplechaser.

At one time, McAdams carried so much extra weight that it invited a variety of nicknames, "Hobbit" being the kindest, "cottage-cheese legs" being among the unkindest. He weighed 190 pounds when he returned from serving a two-year LDS Church mission in Thailand. He showed up in Provo tipping the scales at more than 170.

"He was definitely pudgy," says coach Ed Eyestone.

McAdams, an Ohio prep wrestler and distance runner, had attended Belmont University in Nashville for a year before his mission. He gave up a scholarship to walk on at BYU, where he wasn't even offered a locker or shoes.

"Within a couple of weeks it was apparent he was a hard worker," recalls Eyestone. "We immediately moved him into a locker."

When Eyestone put some of the distance runners through a series of hurdle drills, McAdams shined, and the coach made him a steeplechaser. McAdams improved steadily and capped his collegiate career by winning the steeplechase at the 2006 NCAA championships.

With a sponsorship from New Balance, he continued to train for a post-collegiate career, but he was realistic. Armed with a degree in microbiology, he was accepted by the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis.

He had planned to divide his time between studies and training, but Eyestone thought the arrangement would hurt his chances of making the 2008 Olympic team. He urged him to put off his studies for a year to focus on the Olympics, but it wasn't until McAdams won the USA Championships that he really took Eyestone's advice.

"I told him (optometry school) is still going to be out there, but he'll have one crack at making the Olympic team," says Eyestone, a two-time Olympian himself. "After winning nationals, he saw how good he was. He realized the Olympics were a real possibility."

"There are no guarantees I'll make the Olympic team," says McAdams, "but if I stay here my odds increase quite a bit, and I don't want to have any regrets. I'll apply again (to optometry school)."

He has applied for a job with the Home Depot Olympic development program.

McAdams, who seems certain to improve his personal record of 8:21.36 if he gets in the right race, will face a loaded field in Osaka, and after that he will take aim for next year's Olympic Games.

"I'm hoping to run in the 8:15 range and make the finals," says McAdams, whose best time is 8:21.36. If he does that, maybe they'll get his name right next time.

E-mail: drob@desnews.com