Nick Symmonds has always liked to do things his own way, and that approach on the track and in life is still working for him as the former Division III student-athlete prepares for his second Olympic Games.
He earned a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team by winning his fifth USA Outdoor championship in the 800-meters.
Coming out of high school, Symmonds was a talented, yet rather untested athlete that could have landed a Division I athletic scholarship, but chose a different route in search of a balanced college experience.
“To me, Division I, II, III or NAIA — it really didn’t matter to me,” Symmonds said. “I was looking for a program that would help me accomplish the goals that I had set for myself. One of those goals was to major in pre-medicine or biochemistry. In a lot of the Division I programs, there was no way to balance a pre-med degree and running at the same time. I think some programs wanted me to be an athlete-student, and I specifically wanted to be a student-athlete.”
With his academic and career aspirations, Symmonds wanted the flexibility to schedule practice around his afternoon lab classes and to race as much or as little as he wanted. He found that at Willamette, a small school with an enrollment of just 2,000 undergraduates. Symmonds was able to work with the Bearcats’ coaching staff and not get lost in the shuffle.
“I was late bloomer, and a little bit of a big fish in a small pond in Idaho,” Symmonds said. “I liked being the center of attention, and liked being able to call my shots a little bit, and wanted to continue that feeling in having a say in where I raced and what I did in college. Willamette’s resources were directed in helping me along and giving me the boost that I needed.”
“He knows he could have run at a lot of Division I schools but he has always said that he chose Willamette for the balanced collegiate experience,” Willamette head coach Matthew McGuirk said. “He was certainly not over-trained or over-raced in college.”
In Symmonds’ freshman outdoor season, McGuirk saw a glimmer of the young athlete’s great potential. He won 800 meters at the Oregon Preview that March, finishing in 1:51.18 in his first collegiate race at that distance.
“I told him that the race had a few pretty good sub-1:50 guys in there so he was to follow and make no moves until the at least 300 meters to go,” McGuirk said. “He followed for 500 meters, then with about 300 meters to go he took off and won the race by two seconds. His lap splits were 57 and 54 seconds, which is impressive to have that much of a negative split while running that fast.”
Symmonds would go on to have an incredible collegiate career, never losing an 800m race and claiming four Division III outdoor titles at the distance between 2003-06. He also picked up three titles at 1500m, winning in 2003, 2005 and 2006.
“I would recommend [to other student-athletes] discarding the notion Division I, II and III, and anything being superior or inferior because of the label,” Symmonds said. “I would say to look at a program that will allow you to accomplish the goals you set for yourself.”
Competing at the Division III level definitely gave Symmonds a different perspective than being on a team at a large Division I school. And, in the long term, it allowed him to peak later in his career and, perhaps, now have fresher legs at the age of 28.
“It gave me an awful lot of confidence,” Symmonds said. “I never lost an 800 meter race during my entire collegiate career. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It taught me how to win races — a slow race or a fast race. I learned to always find a way to get to the finish line first. On the downside, I never fully tested myself and push myself. You need competition to do that.”
While his goal was always to continue a long-standing family tradition of becoming a doctor, during the summer before his senior year at Willamette was when Symmonds realized the possibility of running at the elite level. He traveled with a friend to Mexico that summer, living and training at an 8,000-foot altitude for 10 weeks.
“When we came back, I almost felt superhuman,” Symmonds said. “With the base I had built up, I thought I might do some special things in track. I needed to prioritize, and give track 100 percent. I put medicine on the back burner — I finished my degree, but I didn’t study for or take the MCAT.”
A year later, Symmonds took second place in the 800 meters at the 2006 U.S. Championships, running a personal best of 1:45.83 at the time. The performance landed him contract with Nike, and gave him a feeling that a spot on the 2008 Olympic Team could be in his future.
Symmonds started training twice a day and upped his mileage. He also began weight lifting and cross training, and cut out the partying.
“I really tried to live the life of a professional runner and it paid off huge in 2008 when I won the Olympic Trials and made that first team,” Symmonds said.
While he did not make the Olympic final in 2008, it is definitely his goal this time around and there is a great potential to make that dream come true. In 2009, Symmonds became the first American to make the men’s 800m final at the World Championships since Rich Kenah won the bronze medal and Mark Everett finished eighth in 1997. Symmonds qualified for the World Championships final again in 2011.
“In 2008, I peaked for the Olympic Trials and anything else was going to be icing on the cake,” Symmonds said. “I was really young and inexperienced, and it was kind of a long shot to make the finals. Now, the expectations are a lot higher. I’ve adjusted my training accordingly to peak in the Olympic finals. I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t make the Olympic finals in the 800 on Aug. 9. Once I’m in that race, I like my shot at medaling.”
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In addition to his talents on the track, Symmonds will most likely be attracting attention in London because of his fun, engaging personality and sometimes controversial opinions on policies governing athletes’ endorsements. He has made news for going on a date with socialite Paris Hilton and auctioning off some space on his upper arm to display a temporary tattoo for a sponsor’s twitter handle during the 2012 season.
“He always used to tell me that he wanted everyone to know who he is,” McGuirk said. “He is taking steps towards that on a couple of different paths.”
“At the end of the day, we’re in the entertainment business,” Symmonds said. If people don’t buy tickets or tune in to watch us run, then we don’t have a job anymore. When I came to that realization, I decided to have some more fun with it and interact with the fans and media, and have a good time in general and be the guy people want to tune in to watch.
“I want people to say, ‘I don’t know anything about track and field, but I know about this Symmonds kid and I’d kind of like to see what he’s going to do because he’s fun to watch.’ “