SUWANEE - It's amazing how much staying healthy can impact a cross country runner.
Collins Hill's Philip O'Brien is finding that out first hand.
After struggling through foot injuries last season, O'Brien has bounced back for a breakout year.
O'Brien won the Gwinnett County championship earlier this season and is a favorite for Saturday's Region 7-AAAAA meet at River Green Park in Duluth.
"I feel really fortunate I haven't been injured," O'Brien said as he knocked on wood. "Race after race, Coach (Andrew) Hudson and I talk about strategy and what I should do and it's paid off real nicely."
O'Brien struggled with plantar fasciitis, pain in his heel, and pulled six ligaments in his foot throughout the 2006 season. Needless to say, last year was not a good one for O'Brien.
He took it easy during the track season, concentrating on getting healthy, and by the summer he was back to full strength. O'Brien began to train with teammate Rob Manning, who was 11th at state last year, and the practices seemed to help. O'Brien improved his time and from the preseason has excelled from the start, winning the McCormick Invitational and then placing second at the first meet of the season.
But by winning the county meet, O'Brien let everyone know he would be a contender.
"I think that was a big breakthrough for him mentally and I think it was a big breakthrough for us in terms of expectations as a truly elite runner," Collins Hill coach Andrew Hudson said. "I think he saw it, I think he felt it and we all saw it happening over the summer."
O'Brien won the county meet with a time of 15 minutes, 51 seconds and at the time it was his personal record.
"That was really nice because the first couple of races before that this season, I did pretty good, but I still couldn't gauge myself," O'Brien.
"Then county came and obviously I won and that was big because it kind of felt like everything I did had finally paid off."
By winning the county meet, O'Brien became just the third Collins Hill boy to win the race, joining Derek Nett and Jesse Marino. But the senior didn't stop there. At the next race, O'Brien placed second at the Mill Run and set a new personal record of 15:29.
When the Eagles competed against some of the top competition in the South, O'Brien didn't let up there either. He placed 18th at the Great American Cross Country Festival with a time of 16:21. Two weeks ago at the Coach Wood Invitational he was fourth, but more importantly, beat some of the same runners he'll face at region.
"It would be really nice to get a region championship individually and as a team," O'Brien said.
O'Brien defeated last year's Region 7 champion, South Forsyth's Gator Jackson, at the Coach Wood Invitational. He's also beaten Mill Creek's Colin Conroy and Peachtree Ridge's Matt Rivers and could even be challenged by Manning, who has been battling an injured hamstring.
"I would like to think he's the favorite considering he's beat all of the top returners in the region from last year," Hudson said.
That's pretty impressive considering O'Brien finished 30th last year at region.
"It's been going really good and I just hope it continues on to state," O'Brien said.
Injury free of course.
SideBar: THE O'BRIEN FILE
' Who: Philip O'Brien
' Sport: Cross country
' School: Collins Hill
' Class: Senior
' Favorite movie: "Gladiator"
' Favorite food: Fettucini alfredo
' Favorite athlete: His coach, Andrew Hudson
' Favorite musical group: Tenacious D
' Won county cross country meet with a time of 15 minutes, 51 seconds
' Placed second at Carrollton Invitational and Mill Run
' Considering Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt as college options
' Maintains 3.944 GPA