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Fleet-Footed Symmonds Fastest in Nation

There may be a good reason why Nick Symmonds '06 chose the element mercury to study for his senior research project. Named for the fleet-footed messenger of the gods, Mercury, the liquid metal "quicksilver" fits Symmonds like a new running shoe. Quite simply, Nick Symmonds is the fastest man in Division III.

Less than 24 hours before receiving his college diploma in Salem, Symmonds capped his Bearcat athletic career by setting a Division III record in the 800 meters at the Tennessee Distance Running Solution. Racing against a field populated largely by professional runners, Symmonds sprinted past the competition and qualified for the United States Track Association championships in June, the first step toward making the national team.

An Academic All-American, the recent graduate is a seven-time national champion in the 800 and 1,500 meters, winning his final two races in late May at the NCAA Division III Track and Field Championships. Symmonds was named the 2005 Division III Track and Field Male Athlete of the Year, and early this spring won the prestigious Ad Rutschman Award, presented at the annual Oregon Sports Awards Banquet to the state's top small college athlete.

Beyond his accomplishments on the short track, Symmonds was the surprise winner of the Northwest Conference cross country championship last fall, helping lead the Bearcats to another conference and regional championship, their fifth in a row, and a 16th place finish at nationals.

Symmonds won two national championships in the 800 and 1,500 meters as a freshman. An injury sidelined him his sophomore year; he raced only once, and won the 800. Last season, as a junior, the Boise, Idaho, native doubled up again, leading the Bearcats to a fourth place finish at nationals, their second consecutive top five national finish. The Bearcat senior beat two very tough fields to win the 800 and 1,500 at the 2006 championships--his final two races in his Willamette athletic career.

It's more than just natural talent. Symmonds has always worked hard at his running, training last summer with two teammates in the thin air of Toluca, Mexico, 9,000 feet above sea level. The training paid off as Symmonds gained strength and endurance, turning last fall into his best cross country season and earning the Northwest Conference championship. His experience in Mexico, however, served a dual purpose for the student-athlete; he and his teammates refined their Spanish-speaking skills and spent invaluable time learning about the Mexican people and culture.

"My summer in Mexico was an awesome experience that helped me gain a lot of physical strength and learn a great deal about myself. It was a chance to log in some great miles at 9,000 feet, and to meet some amazing people," said Symmonds.

While few can catch up with Symmonds on the track, it would have been easy to find him in the Olin Hall chemistry laboratories. In May, Symmonds wrapped up his final research project, studying how mercury cations bind to the digestive enzyme chymotrypsin, causing the enzyme to unfold and precipitate out of solution. The combination of academic and athletic success means a great deal to Symmonds and his coach, Matt McGuirk.

"Nick is the kind of athlete who comes along once in a lifetime at a Division III school," says Track and Cross Country Coach Matt McGuirk. "He's got the ability to run against the best athletes in the country, and yet he still chose Willamette because it gave him a broader experience as a student-athlete."

Beyond his place in the national record book, Symmonds leaves a lasting legacy in Bearcat athletic history: Seven national championships; three school records; state, regional and national athlete of the year honors and recognition as an Academic All-American. Now he's betting on the 2008 Olympics.

So while this decorated student-athlete still faces the same questions as his classmates about life after college, the key to this chemist's future might very well exist on the periodic table of the elements--look just left of mercury to find gold.

This story first appeared on April 18, 2006 in this venue. This edition has been updated to reflect Symmonds's further successes after that date.