by Howie Stalwick & r & The young man working the counter at the Hillyard lunch spot was trying his best not to drool on the chicken teriyaki sandwich he was preparing for Becca Noble.

"Are you the track star?" he finally asked in a feeble attempt to make conversation by asking a question for which he already knew the answer.

Noble, who is only slightly more gregarious than Santa Claus -- except when she's trying to rip your intestines through your throat on the track, of course -- politely answered her admirer's query with an affirmative. A few more awkward moments passed before the sandwich maker revealed one of the reasons he knew the identity of Hillyard's most famous citizen.

"The guns," he said, nodding at Noble's ripped biceps.

Understand this: Becca Noble has always been fast. Blurry fast. Faster-than-all-the-boys-in-the-neighborhood fast. But it takes only the briefest of glances at the lean, bulging muscles of the 5-foot-5, 120-pound Noble to see how many weight-room sweatfests helped produce the world's fastest female junior (under 20 years old) 800-meter runner of 2005.

"She is incredibly dedicated. She works incredibly hard," says Lori Shauvin, an avid track and running supporter who teaches at Rogers High School, where Noble recently graduated.

"She's too strong to have it all be natural," agrees Dennis McGuire, the girls track and cross country coach at Central Valley High. "She works her ass off."

Noble's hard work has long resulted in tremendous success, including the last three State 4A championships in the 400 meters. This year, Noble added the 800 to her repertoire. The result was a series of memorable performances, including the state title and the national junior championship last month at Carson, Calif.

Only eight junior girls in U.S. history have topped Noble's time of 2 minutes, 3.73 seconds. High school track and field records include summer meets immediately following graduation, so Noble's time shattered a Washington prep record that had stood for 26 years. It's the fastest U.S. high school time in 23 years.

"And," Shauvin marvels, "she was in last place until there were 200 meters to go. She always comes from behind."

"At 200," Noble recalls, "I just go all out ... there were hurdles on the side of the track, and I don't even remember seeing hurdles."

Noble's talent, determination and charge-from-behind heroics have established her as one of the most -- if not the most -- gifted and exciting female athletes in Spokane high school history.

"She competes as well as any girl I have ever seen," McGuire says. "What that means is, if anyone is close to her ... Becca just knows how to find that extra gear."

"She's like no athlete I've ever coached," says Steve Kiesel, the Rogers teacher and former cross country and track coach who now serves as Noble's personal coach. "She just has that will, that confidence that other girls don't have."

Indeed, rather than basking in the glory of her national championship and top-ranked world junior time, Noble has been training diligently for the Junior Pan American Games in Windsor, Ontario. The Junior Pan Ams 800 record is 2:03.7, and Noble flatly states that she's going after the record at the Games, which take place July 28-31 (the girls' 800 semifinals are on July 29; the finals, on July 30).

"I felt like I could run faster than 2:03 [at nationals]," Noble says. "To be leading the world [junior girls] and you feel you can run faster -- that's a good feeling."

Noble fully intends to keep running faster and faster until she wins Olympic gold. She's already figured out that she could compete in three Olympics in her 20s, starting with Beijing in 2008.

"People have always told me, 'We're going to see you in the Olympics someday,'" Noble says, flashing her thousand-watt smile. "I know Steve and I talk about it. He'll say, 'When you go to the Olympics and come back to Spokane with a gold medal, how exciting will that be?'"

That's pretty heady stuff for a kid who has yet to sweat a drop in college, but that's how phenomenal Noble has been thus far and is expected to be for years to come. She fulfilled one of her major goals when she landed a track scholarship at Oregon, the revered track and field school that produced legendary distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

"I saw the Prefontaine movie [during her sophomore year at Rogers], and ever since, I've loved Oregon," Noble says. "He's my idol. I've got four posters of him in my room, and I've got a Pre T-shirt."

Eugene is one of the few American cities where track and field is a big, big deal. Thousands pack historic Hayward Field for meets, and Noble says she caught Duck fever when she attended Oregon's first home meet this spring.

"They were running the victory lap, and there were so many people there -- it was just so exciting," says Noble. "I just can't wait to get there."

The feeling is mutual. (In fact, "The Oregon coaches were just salivating at Carson," Kiesel says.) Noble, taking no chances, recently painted her fingernails bright yellow in honor of her beloved Ducks.

Noble, who will run cross country (she was third at state last year) and track at Oregon, has never been afraid to be a little different.

"I'm into rituals," Noble says. "Like, two days before every meet, I have to eat pizza ... two hours before I race, it's peanut butter and bagels. It's gotta be crunchy."

"As talented as she is, she's one of the nicest people in the world," Kiesel says, who adds that he has had to tell Noble to stop being so nice at Rogers meets. Noble has run the 100 in under 12 seconds, the 200 in under 25 seconds and the 400 in under 54 seconds, but her lips flap even faster.

"She likes to talk to everyone," Kiesel says with a laugh. "We have to tell her, 'Becca, you've got to go warm up.'"

Relax, Coach. Noble figures there's always time to light up someone's face before you warm up your legs.

"You can put a smile on their face," Noble reasons, "and they can put a smile on yours."

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