Forty seconds and less than a lap from another championship, Nick Symmonds was way off the pace—as in dead last. The fans at his adopted-hometown track in Eugene, Oregon, hadn’t given up hope, however. Symmonds had a habit of charging from behind to win, and they knew the leader, Duane Solomon, had gone out ridiculously fast and was likely to crumble. And just like that, out of the first turn on the second and final lap, Symmonds had surged into fifth place.
He did so not with the long, beautiful strides of Kenyan demigod David Rudisha, but by cranking up the turnover of his comparatively stubby legs. His style is often likened to a bulldog, but his strength and composure are something to behold. While 800-meter races appear to end with a sprint to the finish, the winner is actually the guy who dies the least, and Symmonds calmly feasts on that truth.
“Three hundred meters to go, it was then a matter of just picking people off,” Symmonds would say later. “If I can be on the leader’s shoulder with 100 meters to go, I like my chances.” It took until 70 or 80 meters to go to get there, but get there he did. Competitors fell away—Solomon literally came to a halt—and Symmonds kept his form and powered to the line, a U.S. title winner by a couple of meters. After overcoming a year of injury and doubt, and this fierce fight to the finish, Symmonds would be competing at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing in August. It was a race he never ran.
An important thing to know about Nick Symmonds: He’s a “D3 guy” and will always see himself that way. Division III is the lowest rung in college sports, where there are no athletic scholarships and the term student-athlete isn’t used with a wink. So Symmonds came out of little Willamette University, in Oregon, intent on proving he belonged, and that attitude has paid off. His win at Eugene last year earned him a sixth U.S. title, to go along with the silver he took at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.
He’s done it with personality, too, engaging tens of thousands of followers on Twitter and Instagram with posts showing him pulling fish out of Pacific Northwest rivers, sampling the region’s legendary craft beers and generally enjoying the hell out of life.
But if Nick Symmonds sounds like a dream come true for the folks who run USA Track & Field, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. As frequently as he’s earned headlines for winning races, Symmonds has been in the news for his saber-rattling for athlete rights. More than a medal in Rio, his biggest achievement might be to push track and field out of its lingering, gauzy days of amateur virtue to thriving 21st-century professionalism.
“The fights that I’m fighting as a runner, they help all athletes,” says Symmonds. “When people say I’m fighting for my own interest, I say ‘Hell, yes.’ But every victory I can win is a victory for our sport.” Sometimes it’s necessary to bite the hand that feeds you. And in terms of exposure, there’s no time like the present. As the world’s best athletes gather in Rio for the Summer Olympic Games, the media is on high alert to celebrate heroes, and plenty will be found at the track stadium. Outside of the Games, however, most of those athletes recede from view, and many face financial hardship.
They make almost all their income from sponsorships, shoe companies. Prize money is scant—an Olympic medal comes with no direct cash at all. There’s been little innovation in organizing seasons or meets to make the sport more compelling in the age of televised riches. So you end up with a megastar like Usain Bolt pulling in $20 million in a year, world and national leaders earning generally between $100,000 and $500,000 (keep in mind, the NBA minimum salary is $525,093), and more than half the top 10 nationally ranked U.S. track and field athletes making less than $15,000 from their sport.
It’s a world in which sponsors hold sway, and one that Symmonds understands well. He sees it as an athlete and he sees it as the entrepreneur he became early in his career, when he was desperate to put his whirring brain to work between training sessions. “After I’d read all the books I’d wanted to read and seen all the movies, those three or four hours in the middle of the afternoon were no longer pleasurable,” he says. “Some athletes love those empty hours. To me, they were torture.”
So he dove into business with his friend and mentor, Sam Lapray, opening several tanning salons. After a few years, they sold the salons to start Run Gum, a caffeinated gum aimed at athletes. Now Run Gum is at the heart of Symmonds’ latest conflict with his sport’s governing bodies, coming just months after the extraordinary events that unfolded in the wake of his win at Eugene.
One hundred and thirty U.S. athletes had qualified to compete in Beijing, and in short order one hundred and twenty- nine signed a document that committed them to wear Nike-branded team gear at “official team functions.” Symmonds, who in 2014 left Nike after seven years for a three-year deal with Brooks Running Company, balked.
In what the New York Times called “an extreme form of marketing brinkmanship,” he demanded USA Track & Field clarify the meaning of “team functions” so he could know what to wear, when. It wasn’t an anti-Nike move, Symmonds insists: “I just have a huge sense of responsibility to make sure Brooks gets a return on their investment.” Phone calls and emails and no small amount of sniping in the media ensued, but in the end, neither side would back down. Shockingly, America’s best 800-meter runner was left off the Beijing team.
Disaster? Not entirely. For weeks, Symmonds was the one track and field athlete in the headlines, the one runner with a hot Twitter hashtag (#letnickrun), the only American standing up to the tyranny of the governing bodies. He was bigger than ever.
Officialdom chafes at his incessant poking and lecturing, critiquing and objecting, which this year morphed into litigation, a lawsuit by Run Gum against the U.S. Olympic Committee and USATF for alleged antitrust violations in limiting the brands athletes can display at the Olympic Trials—cutting out Run Gum, among others. And while many athletes cheer Symmonds on, support among his peers isn’t unanimous.
His pal and former teammate Will Leer, flirting with sacrilege in invoking the immortal Pre, says Symmonds has “done more for American running than probably anyone since Steve Prefontaine.” Yet, he adds, “There are some people who see Nick as a loudmouthed punk.” Dwight Phillips, chair of the USATF Athletes Advisory Committee, says he “can sometimes come off as self-serving.”
Symmonds makes no apologies. Others might be comfortable waiting for USATF, the USOC or the International Olympic Committee “to toss them scraps,” as he put it, but not Symmonds. His loyalties are to his fans, sponsors and his own brand. But he also sees his efforts as a proxy for every athlete. A rising Nick Symmonds LLC tide lifts all boats.
So when he’s got a beef with the governing elite, he’ll find the cameras and microphones, the folks with notepads, or take to Twitter and air his grievances. “You have to remember this about Nick: He has a moral conviction to do what is right,” says Lapray. “When he’s wrong, he’ll acknowledge it, but you need to be ready for an argument. He’s not just going to accept someone saying, ‘This is the way it is.’ ”
It’s been that way his whole life. In a 2014 autobiography, Symmonds tells of struggling to understand the “three-in-one idea” of the Holy Trinity as taught at Catholic school in Boise, Idaho. “At home, whenever I was confused about something my parents encouraged me to ask questions,” he writes. That didn’t go over so well with the clergy, but his mom backed him up, telling off the priest who’d threatened to stop giving Nick communion.
All grown up, he continues to cut his own path. He rejects the dietary asceticism of most runners, believing that not only will a beer or two not kill him, it keeps him sane. He could afford to, but he’s not interested in filling big houses with stuff. He lives in a small apartment in Seattle and drives a 2007 Nissan Frontier, though not much in the city, where he mostly gets around on a Cannondale SuperSix.
If he’s driving, it’s to go fishing, a passion since boyhood. When he left Nike and the Oregon Track Club, people speculated how he’d do with a new coach and team; Symmonds wondered about the fishing up in Seattle. The verdict: awesome. He’s out the door at 6 in the morning, on the Olympic Peninsula by 7 and has a line in the water by 7:30. Seattle has also rekindled the Eagle Scout’s passion for mountain climbing. He wants to marry and have kids, after he conquers the Seven Summits—the highest peaks on each of the continents.
There’s a driven quality to Symmonds that can look like the usual quest for money or attention, or both, but below the surface is a burning desire to be in charge of his life and shape his future— and to help give his fellow track and field athletes that same power.
“We’d all like to be billionaires one day, right?” he says. “But the reasons I want the billions are probably a lot different than another person’s. I want it for what it allows me to do. To change the world, to make it the world I want to live in and that I want my kids to live in. In the world of track and field, that’s really what money does.”
Last September, USATF said it would begin rewarding national team members $10,000 apiece. Symmonds initially called that a step in the right direction, even if the sum represents a small portion of the $20 million a year Nike agreed to pay as Team USA outfitter. But now he’s “very worried about what strings will be attached.” Anyway, it’s peanuts compared to what ought to come to athletes from the Olympic governing bodies, “the biggest thieves of all,” he says. To Symmonds, the solution is simple. “You need to create a for-profit professional organization that can manage the professional side of track and field,” he says. “It’s what tennis did. It’s what golf did. It’s what every professional sport has, an entity to manage the professional side of the business.” To make that happen would require track and field athletes organizing in a way they never have. They need a Marvin Miller, the union man who brought baseball out of the dark ages, but Symmonds said that’s not him.
“I’ll speak my mind and I won’t sign things that I think are bullshit, and I’ll raise hell through my corporations, but I’m not a union organizer,” he says. “I wish I was, but I’m not that guy.” Where he sees himself, instead, is on the management side, working with the athletes to build a product-focused professional track structure that can become a money-making machine like the other big-time sports:
“I want to be the guy that says I love women’s hammer, and we need you at the Olympics, but I don’t know that you’re going to be a part of the for-profit entity that track and field needs to become. Hell, the men’s 800 meters might not even fit the criteria. I understand that. You have the 100, you have the mile, pole vault—you’ve got a couple of events that pay the bills, and if you’re going to make a really great, thrilling meeting, some of the things are going to get left behind.”
But even as he envisions a different future for track, Symmonds is far from done on the track. He’s intent on wringing as much as he can out of his running career—in Rio, at the Olympics. Symmonds has his U.S. titles and his World Championships silver, but he knows that for most people, you aren’t a runner worth paying attention to until you’ve won an Olympic medal. In 2012 at London, Symmonds ran a personal record 1:42.95, becoming the third-fastest American ever at the distance, but it was only good for fifth as the Kenyan Rudisha pulled the field through the greatest 800-meter race ever and set an astonishing world record of 1:40.91. Symmonds aches for another shot and as summer neared was zeroing in on his training—balanced with just the right amount of grenade throwing. “I can’t train without speaking my mind and saying USATF and USOC didn’t get me here,” he says. “Brooks got me here. [Coach] Danny Mackey got me here. Soleus Running got me here. Run Gum got me here. And when I stand on that podium in Rio, I’m going to make sure the world knows who got me there.”