Personal records and shoe contracts motivate most runners, but Nick Symmonds gets amped by proving that his overnight success in the 800 meters is no overnight success.
"Maybe people thought I was a flash in the pan," says the 23-year-old Symmonds, who finished second at the U.S. nationals on June 23 to qualify for worlds (Aug. 25 to Sept. 2, in Osaka, Japan). "But now they appreciate that I'm here to stay."
Symmonds burst onto track and field's hot list last June. A month after graduating from Willamette (Ore.) University, a Division III school, he ran the 800 at nationals. He was unknown, unattached and wearing hisBishop Kelly High singlet, in honor of his coach in Boise, Idaho. He not only finished second to U.S. Olympian Khadevis Robinson, but his time of 1:45.83 was also a personal best by nearly two seconds.
Off that performance, Symmonds picked up a Nike sponsorship and joined the Oregon Track Club Elite. He won the indoor nationals in February, and in June beat Robinson and 2004 Olympic champ Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia at the Prefontaine Classic. His time: 1:44.54, third fastest on the planet this year.
The 800 is a brutal, unpredictable race best described as a blend of dash and death march. Only four U.S. runners have won Olympic medals since 1972, and none since Johnny Grey brought home bronze in 1992. Symmonds has the goods to join that club. In college he won the D3 nationals in the 1,500 three times and never lost at the 800. He admits he doesn't possess much dash, but he learned early that "I can hold onto my mediocre speed, and that's what it takes to run an 800."
To maximize the speed he has, Symmonds recently upped his training miles (60 to 70 per week) and the intensity of his 200-meter repeats. As a result, coach Frank Gagliano says he now "packs tremendous wallop" down the stretch.
In preparation for worlds, Symmonds will spend the summer racing in Europe, sharpening tactics and building stamina. "If I make the finals," he says, "I like my shot."
Win or lose, he has already shown that he's here to stay.
Christopher Cox is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine.