The broad shoulders, the gleaming smile, the tan, the tousled blond hair – Brett Gotcher looks like he should be surfing off the coast of his native California.

And for good reason: Gotcher, 27, grew up surfing in Watsonville, known as home to vast fields of strawberries and abundant great waves. It’s only 26 miles to Monterey and its famous Ghost Tree surf site and 66 miles to Half Moon Bay and the legendary Mavericks, whose combination of enormous waves, frigid water, and great white sharks make it one of the most-challenging surfing spots in the world.

Not that Gotcher was into the big-time surf scene. “I’m not really sure about the biggest wave I’ve ever caught, but I can assure you it’s nothing crazy,” he said. “For me, it was just about getting out there with a bunch of friends and having some fun. There’s no way I could have ever become a pro surfer. Those guys surf at such a high level and take some huge risks.”

Instead, Gotcher (pronounced GO-tcher) became a pro runner, and comes into the Olympic Marathon Trials as the fourth-fastest qualifier. The three men ahead of him on the form chart are all past Olympians and international stars: Ryan Hall owns the fastest marathon ever run by an American, Meb Keflezighi is a 2004 silver medalist, and Dathan Ritzenhein is an IAAF World Half Marathon bronze medalist and former U.S. 5000-meter record holder.

But this is the kind of “high level” marathoning that Gotcher has been chasing since 2007, when he traveled to New York City with the McMillan Elite training group to watch the last men’s Trials. At the time, he had just concluded an All-American career at Stanford with the 10,000 meters as his specialty, but after New York running became all about 26.2 miles.

“Obviously, Ryan’s race was amazing,” Gotcher recalled. “It was something else to see a guy have just an unbelievable day and to see what that can mean, what you’re capable of if you have a really good day in the marathon. Maybe one day I can have a day like that, too.”

In his marathon debut, Gotcher caught a great wave and rode it like a veteran, finishing seventh in the Chevron Houston Marathon in 2:10:36 and qualifying for the Trials with history’s fourth-fastest debut by an American. “I felt like ‘my career has started now and I’m a marathoner,’ ” he told Running Times afterward. His performance instantly pegged him as a contender for the 2012 Olympic team.

A year later came the wipeout: in his Houston return, he struggled home in 2:19:30, short on fuel and long on disappointment. He signed on almost immediately to run the Boston Marathon three months later, but was forced to scratch with a hip problem that developed in trying to come back too quickly. In retrospect, he says, it was probably better that he didn’t do Boston. “I think I just got caught up in the fact that I had a bad race in Houston,” he said, “and felt like I really needed to follow that up with a good race right away instead of just being confident in my ability to take my time and recover and then have a good race later on. It forced me to take more time off, which is what my body needed. I came off of it feeling great.”

At the Trials, says Gotcher, it will be tough to topple the trio of Hall, Keflezighi and Ritzenhein, but that any one of 15 guys is poised to make the kind of breakthrough needed to do it. As the #4 seed he is certainly one of them, but refuses to get ahead of himself.

“I’d expect that most people are going to have to PR to make it on the team,” he said, “and there’s probably going to be a lot of people who PR and run very fast and don’t make the team.”

If the Trials come down to mental toughness, Gotcher will be looking toward the ocean and its lessons about risk. You have to trust the decisions you make on whether or not to take off on a wave, he explained, and the decisions get tougher as the wave gets bigger.

Make the wrong decisions and you’re underwater, running out of breath as you claw your way to the surface.

Make the right ones and you’re an Olympian.

By Barbara Huebner