Running With Passion

Article posted with permission from the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore. Story by reporter Gary Horowitz.

EUGENE, ORE. -- Nick Symmonds feels a kinship with legendary Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine.

Every time Symmonds steps on the track at Hayward Field, he thinks about how Prefontaine symbolized "what it's like to race with passion." Symmonds visits "Pre's Rock," the site of Prefontaine's death in a car crash 33 years ago, for inspiration.

At 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, Symmonds is similar in physical stature to Prefontaine. He tries to emulate Prefontaine's work ethic, and shares Pre's insatiable desire to run fast.

What a story it would make: An NCAA Division III athlete from Willamette University goes on to make the U.S. Olympic team, qualifying on the same track that Prefontaine ran on during his college days at Oregon.

Prefontaine won the 5,000 at the 1972 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, and finished fourth at the 1972 Munich Olympics. He is the subject of several books and two movies.

While Symmonds would love to be thought of in the same breath as Prefontaine some day, he wants his story to end differently. At 24, Symmonds is the same age as Prefontaine at the time of his death.

"I'm hoping this one isn't tragic at all," said Symmonds, the No. 2 ranked American at 800 meters. "Division III guy goes on to win Olympic gold would be a great story. But there's still a lot of steppingstones first."

Making the U.S. Olympic team is the No. 1 priority. The top three placers at the trials will qualify for the Aug. 8-24 Beijing Olympic Games.

Symmonds' primary competition at the trials figures to be Khadevis Robinson, who has been ranked No. 1 in the U.S. the past three years.

But there are other 800 runners who could challenge for a spot on the Olympic team, including Oregon sophomore Andrew Wheating, who placed second at the recent NCAA championships and posted an Olympic "A" qualifying standard of 1:45.32.

Former Oregon runner Matt Scherer, who recently switched from the 400 to the 800, is another contender.

Symmonds, who ran a 1:45.01 to finish fourth at the Prefontaine Classic on June 8, has only competed in three outdoor races this year.

He was spiked on his right knee at the Adidas Track Classic in Los Angeles on May 18 in a 1,500 race and the wound required 10 stitches. It forced him to miss four days of training and he was not 100 percent for the Pre Classic.

"You're never disappointed when you go out and put it all on the track," said Symmonds, a Boise, Idaho, native who trains with the Eugene-based Oregon Track Club Elite.

"I wasn't able to win, but I feel like I raced with courage and that's what I want to come out and do."

Symmonds arrived on the international scene with his victory in the 2007 Prefontaine Classic, roaring past defending Olympic champion Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia down the stretch with a memorable kick in a personal best time of 1:44.54, a meet record.

"The thrill of winning the Pre is unbelievable," he said.

There were signs that Symmonds was an up and comer when he placed second in the 2006 U.S. outdoor track and field championships as a Willamette, but the Prefontaine event set the state for great expectations.

He is hardly a one-race wonder.

"I saw it coming," said Frank Gagliano, head coach of the Oregon Track Club Elite. "The big thing about Nick right now is he's very young. If he can keep his head on his shoulders, if he stays healthy, hopefully he'll be in Beijing at 24 years of age."

Don't look for Symmonds to get caught up in his own success. He's taking nothing for granted. After all, anything can happen on race day and qualifying for the Olympics is hardly a lock.

Symmonds turned his cell phone off June 1 to avoid distractions leading up to the trials, and he put his social life on hold months ago.

"Dating has been next to nonexistent," Symmonds said. "Every time I start a relationship I take off for a month or two (to compete). I have enough problems dragging suit cases.

"I think you can make a relationship work on the (professional) circuit, but it's a really fine balance and it takes the right combination."

Symmonds has come so far, so fast, that it hardly seems possible that he wasn't heavily recruited coming out of high school. The truth is, he started running in high school to stay in shape for hockey and soccer.

There was virtually no interest from Division I schools. Even his hometown college, Boise State, passed.

So Symmonds decided that his education would come first and Willamette seemed like the right fit. He was in a fraternity and earned a degree in biochemistry.

"It was the perfect college experience," Symmonds said. "It definitely was a springboard."

The kid who ran an unspectacular 1:55 as a junior in high school and "didn't go through puberty until halfway through high school," began to blossom at Willamette.

Symmonds was a seven-time NCAA Division III champion and never lost an 800 race.

"He certainly hasn't come out of nowhere from my perspective," said Matt McGuirk, head men's and women's track coach at Willamette.

"His times didn't improve dramatically his four years in college, but he just kept winning bigger and better races.

"What he has is an amazing desire to compete and win."

In college and now on the world stage, Symmonds never felt like he didn't belong. It is that inner belief that could take Symmonds to Beijing.

His best days likely are down the road.

"I never once doubted my ability to race anywhere in the U.S. when I was in college," Symmonds said. "I try to carry that mentality into my professional career. I could care less if you're Russian or Kenyan."

Or Khadevis Robinson.

Robinson was third at the Prefontaine Classic in 1:44.55. Alfred Kirwa Yego of Kenya placed first in 1:44.01, followed by Yusuf Saad Kamel of Bahrain (1:44.18).

In the U.S., the 800 is about Robinson and Symmonds heading into the trials. They finished one-two (with Robinson winning) at the 2007 USA championships in Indianapolis and the 2008 USA indoor championships in Boston.

"Michael Jordan needed Magic Johnson," Robinson said. "Magic Johnson needed Larry Bird. Tiger Woods needs Phil Michelson. For me, (Symmonds) pushed me to another level."

Wheating calls Symmonds a "good friend."

"He's incredible. I think he's an excellent runner," Wheating said. "He's a nice guy. If anyone deserves to do real well in the 800, he's definitely one of them."

The 800 heats will be held Friday, opening day for the trials, which run through July 6. The semifinals are set for Saturday and the finals Monday.

Whatever happens at the trials and in the Olympics, Symmonds is at the early stages of his career. Last summer he got a taste of international competition during meets in Italy, Spain, and Belgium. He was on the U.S. team at the world championships in Osaka, Japan, but did not qualify for the finals.

Yego won the race, Borzakovskiy was third.

Symmonds placed sixth at the 2008 World indoor championships in March in Valencia, Spain.

"I'll keep running as long as I'm having fun," Symmonds said. "I'll know when to hang the shoes up. I'd like to see how far I can take this well past 2012."

So far, so good.

For Symmonds, it's not about getting caught up in the politics of track, which has been tainted by drug scandals, or "the money and fame."

It's about how fast he can move his body around the track for two laps, ignoring the pain and pressing on.

"I think I've proven on my best day I can beat anyone out there," Symmonds said.

Schedule and Results
U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials
Former Willamette runner Nick Symmonds will compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 800-meter run.

Former Willamette runner Nick Symmonds will compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 800-meter run.