Nick Symmonds Might Be An 'Old, Fat, Has-Been,' But He's Not Done Yet
"From a young age, I always thought that I'd retire in some catastrophic accident--a motorcycle crash or a rock climbing accident. I really felt that because of my hobbies, something horrible would happen where I'd just shatter my body," the 33-year-old says over the phone while contemplating his final season of competitive running.
He doesn't even own a motorcycle anymore. He hasn't since 2008, when then-coach Frank Gagliano confiscated the keys to Symmonds' 1983 Honda Nighthawk just days before the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"He said, 'I didn't spend the last two years turning you into an Olympian to let you kill yourself right before you go to Beijing,'" Symmonds recalls. "You don't argue with Gags. When the godfather speaks, you just say, 'Yes, sir.'
"That was basically the end of my motorcycle riding days, but I'm looking to get one at the end of the month, actually. As soon as I retire, I think that might be my retirement present to myself."
Symmonds is going out in 2017. That is certain. But it will be on his own terms.
The six-time U.S. outdoor champion, two-time Olympian, and 2013 IAAF World Championships silver medalist has announced that he will make his season debut--and possibly career finale--at the Portland Track Festival, next Sunday, June 13. He wants to run one last USA Outdoor National Championship, and he needs to run the USAs "A" standard of 1:47.50 to clinch his spot. If he doesn't make the time, he will make a second attempt five days later at the Stumptown Twilight--as long as his ankle hasn't blown out by then.
Symmonds withdrew from the Olympic Trials last summer due to a torn ligament and stress fracture in his left ankle. He was back to full health by the end of the year but tore a tendon in his left knee in January.
"I've had three different tears in my lower left leg over the last 18 months," he says. "I think it's just my body's way of saying I'm not supposed to run in circles anymore. I can still run on the trails and the roads just fine. I can do the full mileage, but when I get to the track, things really start breaking down quickly.
"I'm fairly certain that when I run in lane one in Portland, I'm going to tear a ligament in my ankle that's not structurally sound right now."
Symmonds has often seemed like the Steve Prefontaine of our time, a champion runner as fearless off the track as on it and eager to speak out for athletes' rights--even at a cost to himself. Symmonds didn't participate in the last world championship he qualified for, in 2015, because he refused to sign a USATF contract stipulating he wear Nike-emblazoned Team USA gear at all times. He felt that the contract violated his sponsorship with Brooks. Many athletes sponsored by non-Nike entities silently reconcile the same problem every championship year, but Symmonds was the only one who felt obliged to take a stand. His caffeinated gum company, Run Gum, launched an antitrust lawsuit against USATF and the USOC last year to combat a rule disallowing them to advertise on athletes' attire at the Olympic Trials.
There's no doubt that Symmonds will continue to be a dominant presence in the track and field world as long as he wishes. It's just that since 2015, his role has moved closer to the bureaucratic side of things and further from the performance end.
But don't count him out of one last rodeo.
"Here's what I'll let you in on," he says when I ask if the outdoorsman has started making plans for summer fishing trips yet. "I really believe that if I make USAs, I have a very good chance to make the world team. Because so many people crap the bed when they get to a championship setting. It's mostly mental, and I've proven that I can navigate rounds better than nearly anybody on the track.
"I think it will be easier for me to make the U.S. finals than it will be to get a U.S. qualifier."
The first heat of the 800m in Portland will be paced with the IAAF world standard of 1:45.9 as the target. Symmonds, who ran his PB of 1:42.95 en route to a fifth-place performance at the 2012 London Olympic Games, will be in the second heat, in which he plans to run 1:47.5 "the slowest way possible."
"By that, I mean I'm going to run dead-even splits," he says. "I want to go 53, 53--1:47.5. That's the safest way for me to get around that track without getting injured."
We filmed this Workout Wednesday with Symmonds and the Brooks Beasts before his injury in 2016:
It probably would have been easier to hang up the spikes after missing the Olympic Trials with injury last year. But making a comeback as a grizzled 33-year-old, six pounds over racing weight, has presented not only personal insight for Symmonds himself but also valuable lessons for his coach, Danny Mackey, who leads the Brooks Beasts group in Seattle.
"I think that he's learning a lot by coaching a half-miler into his mid-30s," Symmonds says. "It's not something that many coaches get a chance to do. He's going to have more athletes over the next 30 or 40 years of his coaching career that he has to coach into their 30s, and I think that he's learning a lot about what it takes to keep an athlete healthy at this level of the game and how to hack someone's training.
"I like bouncing ideas around off of him. We have fun thinking, 'Well, what would we ideally do this weekend?' 'OK, we'd do eight by a quarter all out on the track.' 'Well, I can't do that, so how do we simulate that on the hill?' 'Or, how do we simulate that on the trail?' It's fun for both of us. He loves the science behind training."
The easy way out isn't really Symmonds' style, anyway.
"I want to go out swinging," he says. "Even if I strike out miserably. Let's say I go to Portland Track Festival and I run a 1:55 and I'm this old, fat has-been running around the track. I love it. I love that. That's a beautiful way for me to go out. Leaving everything I got on the track.
"I always watched people retire when I was younger and I thought, 'That's so sad.' But as my own retirement is kicking in and looks like it's going to take place sometime in the next four weeks, there's no sadness in my heart."
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