Nick Symmonds writes about qualifying for a second Olympic team, battling with track’s governing body and his London experience.
Excerpted from “Life Outside the Oval Office: The Track Less Traveled” by Nick Symmonds. Copyright © 2014 by Nick Symmonds. Published by Cool Titles and reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Paris and I continued to exchange emails and texts over the next several weeks. Though my heart raced every time I got one, I did my best to keep it all in perspective and remain focused on my primary goal of making the Olympic Team. As my final preparations for the 2012 Olympic Trials wrapped up, I felt confident that I would be able to do so. My training had been going very well, and in my final tune up workout, an all out 600 meter sprint, I ran a time of 1:13.9. That was considerably faster than I had run it before winning the 2008 Olympic Trials.
However, I realized that this time there was much more at stake than just whether or not I was going to make the trip to London. This time I had set it up so that all eyes would be on me. I knew there would be people in the stands and at home who hoped I would fail. No doubt I had made some people angry with my antics.
On the other hand, I knew there was an entire team of people cheering for me in Milwaukee, Wisconsin who knew that their investment largely rested on me making this team. And, there was a stunning young blond woman in Beverly Hills who I hoped would follow the results. The question was whether or not I could deal with the pressure I had put on myself.
When the competition finally began, I felt much more prepared to handle the nerves then I had in 2008. This time I was the favorite going in, and the mantra Coach Sullivan had given me again played through my head. The cream always rises to the top.
I advanced through the first two rounds of the 2012 Olympic Trials with relative ease. As is often the case in Eugene, it rained every day I competed and the finals were no different. The days and hours leading up to the finals passed just as slowly as they had during the 2008 Olympic Trials. Now, however, I had Camala and Maci Lapray, Coach Sam’s two daughters, hanging out at my house each day to keep me company. I had known them both since they were little girls and having them with me, watching trashy TV, took my mind off the importance of the upcoming race.
When the evening of the finals finally came, Coach Sam once again picked me up from my house, rap music blaring through his speakers. The windshield wipers were working over time to clear the warm June rain that pelted his windshield. But this time, as we crossed the Willamette River on our drive to Hayward Field, I saw no fisherman for me to envy. Warming up in full rain gear I was surprised at how good I felt. The reduced workload that Coach Rowland had given me in my training in the previous two weeks had left me feeling light and powerful, similar to how I had felt in the Olympic Trials final of 2008. Full of nervous energy and confidence, I grinned during much of my warm up.
Once we were finally led out to the track I took a moment to look at each of my competitors. I knew how nervous they must all be. I remembered back to 2008 when I ran my first Olympic Trials final. The cruelest part of this race is that if it doesn’t go your way, you have to wait four more years to have another chance at proving you are Olympic material. In a country where you either have made an Olympic team, or are largely regarded as an amateur, this race was perhaps more important than any other for these gentleman. Fortunately for me, I was able to take much comfort in knowing that even if I failed to make the team, I would always have the Olympian title next to my name. That helped ease my nerves greatly.
As the announcer introduced the athletes, I paced back and forth in my lane trying to stay loose. When he called out my name the crowd roared loudly. As always, their applause gave me goose bumps and sent a fresh wave of adrenaline through my veins. I was again grateful that the Olympic Trials were taking place here in my hometown. I also was proud to sport the green and black Oregon Track Club Elite jersey that the crowd had come to know and love.
On my left shoulder I wore a piece of white tape that covered my Hanson Dodge Creative tattoo, as per the United States Olympic Committee regulations. Needless to say, I had been asked about the tape many times during the week and had been able to plug my new corporate partner many, many times.
The crowd was hushed and we were called to the starting line. I got into an athletic crouch and waited for the gun to go off. With a loud crack we were set free and took off sprinting. As we rounded the first bend I could tell I was losing ground quickly, just as in 2008. However, this time I remained calm and kept the panic at bay.
As we broke from our lanes down the backstretch and fought for position I settled next to the rail, right behind my old rival, Khadevis Robinson. Khadevis had overcome the pain and frustration of missing out on the 2008 Olympic team to resurrect his career. He was ranked number two coming into these 2012 Olympic Trials.
Tucking in tight behind him, I found myself in sixth place of a strung out, single file race as we approached the second turn. As we moved down the homestretch for the first time, the crowd got to their feet and cheered loudly. Khadevis moved to the outside of lane one, which allowed me to move past him on the inside.
Now moving up into fifth, I watched as the leader, Charles Jock, a young kid from Irvine, California, came through the first lap splitting 49.86. This was faster than we had split the first lap in 2008, and the race showed it. In 2008 the pack was all bunched together, and that made it hard to move up in the race. However, now the competitors were lined up single file making it simple for me to move up on the outside of lane one.
I was a little over a half second back from the leaders at the bell and had let a small gap form between fourth place, Ryan Martin, a young runner from UC Santa Barbara, and myself. I quickly worked to close this gap and by the 500 meter mark was ready to move hard down the backstretch to catch the leaders.
As is my usual race strategy, I knew I needed to be on the leader’s shoulder with 100 meters to go. This was the Coach Gag strategy that had been reinforced into me over and over again, and the one that had worked so well for me in the 2008 Olympic Trials. I was confident it would again work here.
Coming around the final turn I peered around Charles Jock as he began to fade, and set my sights on the new leader, Duane Solomon. Duane was a former Division I standout from USC. He was immensely talented, but had yet to really thrive as a pro. Watching him leading with his long graceful stride several meters ahead of me I wondered if this would be the moment that things clicked for him. I dug deep and pumped hard to get even with Duane. With only 90 meters to go in the race I pulled up shoulder to shoulder with him. Duane’s breathing was controlled and his stride going strong. It was going to come down to a drag race as to who would be the 2012 Olympic Trials champion.
All the hard work, sacrifice, thousands of miles and days in the gym paid off. I was able to lift down the home stretch, maintain my form, and gap the field by several yards. As I took the last few steps I knew what I had just accomplished. I had proven the doubters wrong, and overcome the immense pressure I had felt going into this race. In an unplanned show of relief I threw my arms wide and stuck my tongue out.
Khadevis also moved well down the home stretch and was able to out lean Duane for second place, securing a spot on his second Olympic team. Duane hung on for third and collapsed to the track with fatigue and overwhelming emotion. When I turned to congratulate my competitors on a fine race I first gave Khadevis a big hug and then went to help Duane to his feet. I grabbed his hand and said, “Get up buddy, you’re an Olympian.”
As had happened in 2008, the three of us were given American flags and asked to take a victory lap. Remembering how incredible this moment was in 2008, I took extra time to savor it again. I was saddened, though, that this time I was unable to take the victory lap with my fellow Oregonians Christian Smith and Andrew Wheating. Christian had struggled with injuries since 2008 and was contemplating retirement. Andrew, on the other hand, had moved up to the 1500 and would go on to make the London Olympic Team in that event.
As I passed the Nike hospitality tent I looked up to see several Nike executives among a group of high-level execs. I wondered if they were happy for me, or if they were still frustrated by the fight I had picked with USATF. On one hand, an athlete of theirs had just won the Olympic Trials in the men’s 800 meters. On the other, doing so was going to give me a fantastic amount of press to further my fight with our governing body.
To address this point, the next morning the front page of MSN.com had a picture of me crossing the line, tongue out, with the caption, TEAM USA’S OFFICIAL PAIN IN THE BUTT. Truly flattered, I tweeted a link to the article and said something to the effect of, “We all knew I was a pain in the butt, but now it’s finally official!”
Unlike in 2008, where I had read the news hung over from behind a dark pair of shades, this time around I kept things more under control. Maybe it was the fact that I was older and more mature now, or maybe it was because I knew I had a good chance to win an Olympic medal, either way I was responsible and kept the partying to a minimum during these Olympic Trials.
As had come to be standard protocol under the guidance of Coach Rowland, the Oregon Track Club Elite would be based in Teddington that summer. This beautiful little suburb of London is right on the Thames and is home to Saint Mary’s University, a school with a lovely track and great training facilities. Coach Rowland had coached at this university before coming to America, and he felt at home here. I had been spending summers in Teddington since 2009, so I, too, felt at home. Upon our arrival there was little time to prepare for the upcoming Olympic Games. Coach Rowland and I chose a few key prep races to hone my fitness and prepare me for international competition. All around us, London was consumed with Olympic excitement. I fielded media requests from many sources, both domestic and international, while doing my best to remain focused on my training.
More than anything, I wanted to see the brand new Olympic Village and participate in the Opening Ceremonies. Though I had been to the Olympic Opening Ceremonies in 2008 and knew how stressful they where, I didn’t want to miss out. With only thirty-six hours before the start of the 2012 Olympic Games I began to work my way toward the village.
I had navigated the London public transportation system many times, and now I caught a train into central London. Then I took the London Underground to Stratford, where the entire Olympic Park had just been constructed. I traveled light, with just a small bag, and was dressed in plain clothes.
On the train I kept my eyes open for fellow Olympians who might be traveling in from Heathrow. I didn’t see any, but as I climbed out of the underground station several beautiful, slender, blonde women joined me. They were wearing the blue and yellow team issued jackets from Sweden. As we approached the entrance to the village I asked if they were athletes, and if so, what sport they competed in. “Cycling,” they responded in beautifully accented English.
As we waited in line to get our credentials we conversed some more and I discovered that, for each of them, this was their first Olympic Games. I committed their names to memory and made plans to find them after we were all done competing.
The credentialing process took about thirty minutes and when I was done I had a laminated pass with my picture on it that listed my country and event. Athletes must have this credential with them at all times, as it is what gets them into the village, cafeteria and all venues. It actually is impossible to get into the village without it. There are a few guest passes that can be checked out from your federation, but they are extremely hard to get your hands on.
With my credential hanging around my neck, I walked into the athlete village. It reminded me much of the village in Beijing, rows of apartment buildings all decorated with team flags. However, here in London the weather was much more to my liking, and there was no deafening hum of cicadas to keep me awake.
I walked around aimlessly for ten minutes trying to find an apartment building with USA flags on it. Finally, I found a volunteer who worked with the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) and she was able to direct me to my building.
Inside the apartments, the set up was just as it was in Beijing, dorm-style living. I was staying in a three-bedroom apartment, with two guys to each bedroom. The bedrooms were quite small and the beds were even smaller. My roommate, a javelin thrower and fellow Eugene resident by the name of Cyrus Hostedler, had already moved in, so I took the other bed. I plopped down on it, felt the hard, uncomfortable pillow and comforter, and rolled my eyes. Different city. Same story.
Unlike Beijing, where I had been ignorant enough to not be bothered by the sparse accommodations, I now looked around the sad little room and thought about the five billion dollars that were exchanging hands during these Games. The athletes would not receive a single cent for the paramount role they played in making the Games what they are, and the IOC couldn’t even provide us with a decent blanket.
I didn’t want to let negativity creep in, so I stood up and walked to our balcony. When I slid the door open I walked out to one of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. We were up several floors and faced west, and had an incredible view of the Olympic Village. I sat down on one of the chairs and watched as the sun began to set over it all. This spot, I knew, would be my refuge from the madness and frustrations that were bound to come during my two week stay here.
That evening I went to the cafeteria with a few of the other members of the track team, to see what kind of food we would be eating for the next few weeks. I soon realized that if the IOC skimped on the room furnishings, it was so they could spend money on quality food. For this I was very grateful.
The cafeteria was the size of a super Walmart and had seating for several thousand. There were rows upon rows of food vendors preparing cuisine from all around the world. Tucked in the back corner was a McDonald’s, open twenty-four hours a day—and everything was free!
After dinner I walked around the village to familiarize myself with where everything was. I found a very nice gym close to my building, and a beautiful grassy quad in the center of it all. After my evening stroll, I returned to my room and did my best to rest up for the long day ahead.
The next morning I threw on my trainers and began a running tour of the Olympic Park. I kept the run short though, as I knew that evening’s festivities would be strenuous. In the late afternoon all of Team USA put on our Ralph Lauren manufactured Opening Ceremonies ensemble. Just as in Beijing, my sense of patriotic pride surged as I put on each piece of clothing. Unlike in Beijing, where the team assembled in the gymnasium, here we assembled in the streets of the athlete village. Most sports congregated together using this amazing opportunity to snap pictures. I took a lot of photos with my fellow track team members, but was not particularly pressed to search out other Olympians for a photo op.
I spent most of the evening with American miler, Matt Centrowitz, talking about racing and of course, the girls we hoped to meet during these Games. As we exited the village and began the mile-long walk toward the Olympic Stadium the USA basketball team joined us. As had happened in 2008, Team USA went nuts when our more famous colleagues showed up.
As we approached the Olympic Stadium the majesty of the moment began to sink in. The beautiful stadium was lit up and we could hear the roar of the crowd from a mile away. After more than an hour of walking, we finally approached the entrance to the stadium. For many of us, this was our first time to enter the Olympic Stadium, and it did not disappoint.
As music blared, people cheered for the various counties entering alphabetically. The United States of America was, therefore, one of the last to enter and by the time we took our lap around the track, there were already thousands of athletes standing in the center dancing, and taking pictures.
As exciting as the Opening Ceremonies are, they drag on (and on) for the athletes. We had been on our feet for several hours and had a long while to go, now that we were on the infield. Near the end we were given the option to leave early, to beat the crowd. Matt and I took it appreciatively.
My legs ached, my back ached, and after the two Big Macs I greedily devoured in the cafeteria, my stomach ached. When I finally made it back to my room I collapsed and slept for twelve hours. I awoke the next morning feeling physically beat up and emotionally drained. This was definitely not how I wanted to feel going into the biggest race of my life. I knew I needed to get out of the village and back to my quiet apartment in Teddington so I could rest. I grabbed a small lunch and headed to the Underground to work my way back across the city.
Back in Teddington I was able to get in a short run before becoming too exhausted to go on. I returned to the apartment, ate dinner alone, and crawled into bed. That night I woke up several times shivering and sweating. With dawning horror, I realized the enormous stress of the opening ceremonies had weakened my immune system and I had caught a virus. Terrified that I had ruined my shot at an Olympic medal, I called Coach Rowland. I was beyond panicked. He told me not worry; we’d just push my workout back a day or two. The most important thing, he urged, was rest and hydration. That I could do. I spent the entire day in bed watching episodes of a hilarious British comedy, The Inbetweeners, and sipping coconut water.
I recovered quickly from my illness and spent the next week fine-tuning my speed on the track with Coach Rowland, and in the gym with Coach Radcliffe. Just days before my first round was set to go off I warmed up on the track, expecting a fairly easy session. When I got there Coach Rowland told me what he had in mind. Listening to the session he had planned, I wondered if what he was asking was too much this close to competition.
As I warmed up for this workout I was nervous and worried. Certainly this is too much work right before a championship race. I expressed my concern to Coach Rowland. He nodded and replied, “Fella, you can do what you want, but I know this set of intervals is what you need.” With that he walked toward the starting line.
I was nervous for two reasons. The first was that I might not be able to complete the workout and it would wreck my confidence. The second was that I would be able to complete it, but not recover in time for my races. I decided to once again put my trust in Coach Rowland and give his workout everything I had.
When I finished the last interval I collapsed to the track, all of my energy spent and unable to support my own weight. Coach Rowland walked over and looked down at the helpless, gasping mass he saw in front of him. “Not bad,” he said as he reached a hand down to help me up. With much effort I got to my feet and swayed back and forth as I tried not to vomit. All I could muster was a nod and then tried to walk towards my bag. I made it just a few steps before I needed to sit back down.
“I hope. You know. What you’re doing,” I said between gasps.
Coach Rowland just smiled and said, “You’ll be much better for having done this one. I promise.”
He was generous with the recovery for the next few days, and allowed me to do some very easy running on the grass in nearby Bushy Park. When I returned to the athlete village I was not totally recovered, but was beginning to feel somewhat normal again.
As in Beijing, with each passing day, the quiet athlete village that I left was morphing into one big party. I did my best to stay off my feet, and spent the majority of my time in my apartment watching other Olympic events on television. In Beijing the anticipation for my event had almost been too much to handle, but I felt I had it under better control here in London.
Also helping me through the anticipation and pressure of the event was the fact that many friends and family members had traveled to London to support me. My parents rented a large house a few miles away from the Olympic park, and had invited many of our family friends to join them. That house was my refuge during the Games and I frequently left the village to enjoy a meal and catch up with the people I loved most.
When the morning of the heats in the men’s 800 meters finally came around I was ecstatic. I was not nervous, but rather, full of excitement to finally compete. In six years as a pro, I had never failed to make it out of the first round of a global championship, and usually advanced to the semifinal round with a win. London would prove to be no different, as I won my first race easily.
That night, as I sat in front of my computer waiting for the semifinal heats to be drawn, I had a bad feeling. I felt certain that the world record holder, David Rudisha, was going to be placed into my semifinal. I pressed the refresh button on the Olympic webpage for the hundredth time and, sure enough, there he was, listed right above my name. There was also one extra competitor that had been added to our heat for some reason. To make matters worse, my old friend Marcin Lewandowski had been placed in our heat as well. I immediately had flashbacks of the flailing Pole bumping me in the final stretches of the World Championship final in Daegu.
I started at the screen, looking at the list of competitors in my heat. This isn’t fair! I shouted over and over in my head. I got up and began to pace back and forth in my room. I knew I was in trouble mentally, and shot a quick email to my sport psychologist, Jeff Troesh, back in America. I hoped he was free. Within minutes he responded that he was available to talk. I explained my frustration with the semi draw, how it was unfair that there was an extra guy in our race, how unlucky it was that Rudisha was in my heat, how nervous I was that Marcin would bump me again.
After several minutes of rattling off all that worried me, I finally paused to listen to Jeff’s input.
“I actually like your semifinal. Having Rudisha in the race will make it more honest, and that is good for you as one of the faster guys. Also, isn’t it just as likely, maybe more so, that Marcin will get in the way of one of your competitors, and not you, thereby helping you advance?”
His logic was sound. “Yeah, I suppose so,” I said, still uncertain.
“And, aren’t you more likely to ruin your chances of making the final by wasting energy worrying about things you can’t control?” Jeff knew that this course of reason always calmed me down.
“Yes, of course.” Control the things you can control, I thought.
We continued to chat about ways I could best channel my nervous energy. Then Jeff wished me luck and I promised to call him before the final. I lay back in my bed and tried to think about anything other than the race. Each time my mind drifted back I saw Rudisha running away from me, my heart would race, and I’d be further from sleep. Eventually, I managed to nod off.