Q&A: Nick Symmonds on the Olympics, Doping and Parties
Two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds shares his thoughts about the state of the sport, how elites party, and the difference between running and training.
(Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story quoted Symmonds as saying he “managed to run 1:45 clean.” It should have read “managed to run 1:43 clean.”)
Whether it’s about doping, the hypocrisy of amateurism in sports, Nike’s outsized influence, or human rights, six-time American 800-meter champion, two-time Olympian and serial entrepreneur Nick Symmonds never holds back. Ahead of the 32-year-old’s bid to make his third Olympics on July 4 at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., Symmonds shares his thoughts about the state of the sport, how elites party, and the difference between running and training.
What’s an Olympic year like for you in terms of your focus and state of mind?
It doesn’t change a lot for me as a competitor. It changes a lot as a businessman. Because people wake up and start caring about what I’m doing. Most of the world doesn’t really care what I do for three years, but during an Olympic year everyone wants an interview and sponsors want to be a part of what you’re doing. It’s an exciting year in that you get to work harder off the track.
If you could be czar of track and field, what would you do?
I would do everything possible to separate track and field from the Olympic movement. The Olympics are a great entity but they are so steeped in amateurism that we just can’t have a full-fledged professional sport as long as the Super Bowl for us is the Olympics every four years. I’m really impressed with what tennis did back in the ’70s and ’80s, the way the athletes came together and fought for their rights—and having a Grand Slam model, three to four events each year that paid millions of dollars and everybody in the world would stop and take note. I gotta be honest, nobody cares what happens at a Diamond League event. No one’s gonna remember these races in six months, let alone years from now. I’d even argue the IAAF World Championships is kind of a watered-down competition.
Why should joggers and casual runners care about track and field as a sport?
Right now I don’t think that they should care. The average person probably believes or has heard how filthy our sport is. These are things that make me not wanna follow the sport. And I’m in the sport!
What is it that makes an athlete like yourself suspect a fellow athlete of doping?
All I can speak to is the stuff that I’ve seen around me and though I haven’t witnessed an athlete injecting themselves, I’ve seen what’s happened with the Russians, what’s happened with the Ethiopians, Kenyans, Jamaicans. The lack of testing that takes place outside the United States is laughable to be honest.
Are there telltale signs that make you suspect a certain person, for example?
I’ll go on record of saying that I’m the kind of person that wants to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I’m a short, stocky white kid that managed to run 1:43 clean. I’m by far not the quintessential body type for running fast 800s. So I look at David Rudisha, a 6-foot-3 Masai warrior Kenyan that was raised at altitude, yeah he should probably run two seconds faster than me over 800 meters. So it’s very easy for me to give him the benefit of the doubt and say ‘yeah of course he was clean.’ But again, I’m not necessarily pointing fingers or naming names, I’m just saying if you look at the math, there’s only one way it adds up, and it’s that some of the people we’re competing with are dirty.
You’re known for being able to get into top shape quickly. How do you do it?
I typically carry an extra 5 to 10 pounds on me most of the year. It’s very easy for me to lose that weight, but I get sick or I get injured if I try to run too light, too soon. So I was racing in China last week at 167, which is 7 pounds higher than I’d like to race at USAs. So over the next seven weeks I’ll shed a pound a week with the intention of racing at 160 at USAs. Coach Danny Mackey and I like to call it my weight vest. I carry my training vest around with me for 11 months out of the year and then I take my weight vest off right before USAs and sure enough that helps a lot believe it or not.
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Through combination of diet and training? Or more one than the other?
More diet. I’m the kind of guy that’s always believed that if the furnace is hot enough it’ll burn anything—and I’m running 10 miles a day, so I’ll eat whatever I feel like eating. With just a tiny little bit of focus on my diet, maybe having one beer instead of two at night, maybe having popcorn instead of potato chips with my sandwich at lunch, little tiny tweaks like that I can just shed pounds without thinking about it almost.
What was it like starting a company while still training as an elite runner?
It was kind of a lifesaver in 2014 when I was injured and had a season-ending injury. It was really the first time I’d had to deal with season-ending injures since I turned pro, and I didn’t handle it well. The only way that I could deal with it mentally was the idea of turning lemons into lemonade. And coach Sam [Lapray] and I, we’re kind of serial entrepreneurs. We said let’s view this not as a forced break in my career, but just a bit of a sabbatical that would allow us to do what we’d always wanted to do, and that was start a consumer-goods business basically around the sport of running. I’d had the idea for Run Gum for close to a decade. I estimate I probably lost $100,000 in earnings that summer by not being able to race, but we have recouped that many times over in the creation and success of Run Gum. So it was kind of a blessing in disguise when you look at it that way.
How hard do elites party overall compared to the general populace?
I think they party equally as hard, just not as frequently. I have a lot of friends from college that were never athletes and lived normal lives and they partied a lot, maybe two to three times a week they’re going out. Elite athletes might only go out once a month but when they do they go out harder than anybody. And it’s because they need to blow off that steam.
Like a work-hard, play-hard sort of thing for elite athletes?
Exactly. I remember when I was 22 or 23 and fresh out of college and coach Gags [former Oregon Track Club coach Frank Gagliano] is telling me to make sure I’m in bed by 9:30. It would just anger me. I hated the lifestyle so much when I saw my friends traveling the world and partying, living this carefree lifestyle. Now I’m 32, when most of them are in jobs that they hate and mortgages and families, they would give anything to be in bed by 9:30 and I’m in bed, sleeping peacefully for 12 hours a night. There was kind of this switch in my late 20s/early 30s where the lifestyle went from something I thought was holding me back to something that was probably the best part of the whole job.
Do elite runners enjoy running more than everyone else, or do they sometimes dread going for a run just like the rest of us?
I know for a fact that a lot of elite runners dread going for a run. I love running. I love everything about it. But I always say I hate training. Running is waking up, putting your shoes on and just spending some time alone in nature or with some friends, connecting with the world around you, and it’s beautiful. Training is about doing whatever’s on the paper whether you feel like it or not. Training is sacrifice, it’s time away from family, it’s time away from friends. It’s a 24/7 job.
Is it easy to get focused for the Olympic Trials when you’re in Eugene? What’s it like for you?
It still feels like home. I lived there for eight years and I still have a house there and a business there, so I’m back to Eugene quite a bit. [Symmonds now lives in Seattle.] It’s easy, I just go back and kick my feet up. I would say the huge advantage is that I still have a good following there, and I wanna put on a show for that crowd. And I’m hoping, and I’ll need it this year certainly more than ever, that when I step on that starting line on July 4 and the Eugene crowd goes crazy, that feeling of meaning and that feeling of ‘hey, I really want this’ will allow my legs to get it done one more time and put me on that third Olympic team.
VIDEO: Why I Run: Nick Symmonds