The outspoken athlete and activist ran and wrote all winter, and will release his first book about his life in track and field this summer.
There’s not much Nick Symmonds hasn’t done on or off the track.
At 30 years old, Symmonds is a two-time U.S. Olympic Trials champion in the 800 meters and a world championships silver medalist. He’s won a staggering seven national championships — two indoors, five outdoors. And then there’s his activism, the outspokenness on what he views as abuses of governing bodies, whether they’re over the sport he loves or the communities he cares about.
“I want to get people talking,” Symmonds says in a phone call from Albuquerque, where he’s competing in this weekend’s USA Indoor Track & Field Championships. “Ninety percent of what I do is just get people to have a conversation.”
For someone so visible and so vocal, it seemed only a matter of time before a book publisher approached him about taking his fight to the page. In October, Cool Titles, a boutique publishing house in Beverly Hills run by two lawyers, began a conversation with Symmonds about his first book. When he signed the contract in mid-December, Symmonds was already banging away at his computer, taking his project with him to an altitude training stint in Mexico in January and writing for three or four hours every day. He turned in his 80,000-word first draft (approximately 300 pages) at the end of last month, and is currently working on the second draft.
“The primary goal is just telling the story and saying the things publicly that I’ve maybe told people over a beer in the past,” he says.
There’s a lot more he can say now. On January 1, Symmonds announced a split with longtime sponsor Nike, signing with Brooks Running. Calling the break a “huge weight lifted off my shoulders,” he’s quick to be grateful for Nike’s support but adds, “They’ve got a couple people that are loose cannons that are ruining the sport of track and field.”
The injustices that Symmonds feels many American track and field athletes face from their governing body tears him up inside.
“The more I have to deal with USATF’s nonsensical decisions, the more I have to deal with Nike controlling the sport, some days I’m so overwhelmed it makes me just want to hang up my shoes and say, all right, you guys can have it, I’m going to do something else,” he continues. “But there’s other days where I wake up and I have a lot of energy, and I’m like, ‘No, we’ve got to fight.’ This is too beautiful a sport to just walk away.”
Finding Cool Titles has several advantages, Symmonds says. First, a smaller shop gives him more latitude in what he can say, and for someone with his outspoken record, that’s important. The other is having two lawyers who support your work, can screen it beforehand and defend it after the book is published.
“I don’t pull punches, and there are going to be some punches thrown in this book,” he says. “I’m trying to tell the truth — I’m absolutely telling nothing but the truth — but even in doing that, you still have to be careful how you phrase it so that you don’t open yourself up to litigation.”
He wrote the first draft, he says, “as aggressively as possible,” and it’s been reviewed by Cool Title’s team of lawyers for input into the second draft.
As to what’s in the book, Symmonds says it’s his story in track and field, with “enough running” that runner geeks will appreciate it, but with accessibility for the non-initiated.
“There’s commentary, but really it’s a coming-of-age story of a short, stocky white kid from Idaho who no one would take a chance on,” he says, “and then ends up making two Olympic teams.”
But for die-hard track fans, he’s quick to say that there will be plenty of behind-the-curtain stories about life on the international track circuit. Recreational drug use, travel, and “sex on the circuit” are all included in detail.
The next six months are going to be busy for Symmonds, only partly because of his book, which is currently slated for release before the USA Outdoor Championships, which take place from June 26-29 in Sacramento. With his recent change of sponsors comes a change in location, from Oregon to Seattle. His two homes in Eugene are on the market, and he’s searching for someone to buy his four tanning salons. During this period, he’ll continue to consider commentating gigs and writing opportunities, the most recent of which was an opinion piece on Russia’s discriminatory gay rights policies for CNN.
“My grammar’s still about as poor as anybody’s, but I think I’ve come a long way in being able to shape my arguments,” he says. And then Nick Symmonds, a widely noted outdoorsman from Boise, gives the most Nick Symmonds-like analogy ever, explaining that writing is like carving a block of wood, working layer by layer, from chisel to coarse-grit sandpaper, till finally the fine-grit paper reveals something of beauty and substance.
“I want to make sure the voice matures as I’ve matured over the 30 years,” he says. “Even though you’re reading this arrogant piss-ant in college telling his coach to f——k off, as you see the guy come of age and develop toward the end of the book, you say wow, he really came a long ways.”