Symmonds leads former Division III standouts at Trials
Just two years after becoming Division III’s first seven-time champion in men's outdoor track and field, Nick Symmonds is en route to the Olympic Games as America’s top hope in the 800-meter run.
The former Willamette student-athlete is one of two former student-athletes at Division III institutions who will be on the track in Beijing next month, joining former Carleton cross country and track standout Philip Dunn, who qualified earlier this year for his third trip to the Olympics as an entrant in the 50-kilometer race walk.
Several other recent Division III track and field standouts also made a splash at the just-concluded U.S. Olympic Trials by advancing to finals in their events, including former Pomona-Pitzer distance runner Will Leer, who finished fourth in Sunday’s meet-ending 1,500-meter run. The United States sends the top three qualifiers in each event to the Games.
Former Howard Payne sprinter Greg Nixon finished fourth in a semifinal of the 400-meter run -- behind the three entrants who ultimately advanced to the Olympics -- then finished seventh in the final as LaShawn Merritt outdueled Jeremy Wariner for the title and David Neville claimed the third qualifying spot.
Two former Bates throwers also advanced to women’s finals, with Elizabeth Wanless finishing fifth in the shot put and Kelly Godsey placing seventh in the hammer throw. Former Allegheny student-athlete Jeremy Scott finished sixth in the men's pole vault after tying for the second best vault in the event's preliminaries, while Division III's current championships record-holder in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase, former Concordia (Wisconsin) student-athlete and current Falcons associate cross country and track coach Amanda Kuca Lorenzen, finished seventh in the steeplechase at the Trials
Symmonds’ victory clearly was a highlight of the meet for fans at the Trials in Eugene, Oregon, as the four-time Division III 800-meter champion who attended college nearby (he also won three 1,500-meter run titles for Willamette) led three Oregon-based qualifiers into the Olympics.
Employing his trademark kick from behind the pack entering the next-to-last turn, Symmonds flew past the field to win by nearly a full second, then seemed momentarily stunned upon learning that training partner Christian Smith had edged defending U.S. champion Khadevis Robinson for the third spot on the Olympic team.
“With a hundred meters to go, I felt incredible. I knew I was going to be an Olympian, I knew I was going to win it” Symmonds said in a televised interview three nights later, after NBC Sports replayed the race and the prolonged, noisy celebration in Hayward Field that also was fueled by Oregon sophomore Andrew Wheating’s surprise second-place finish.
“But I wasn’t going to look over my shoulder,” he continued. “I was just going to focus on that line, and I got about 12 seconds to just love it, to feel the crowd, and focus on, what am I going to do when I cross the line?”
Symmonds, Wheating and Smith together soaked in a standing ovation during a victory lap, and Symmonds stopped to exchange hugs with a Willamette coach and then his tearful mother.
“When I saw my mom, I jumped over the fence like it was nothing, like it was 2 inches high, and then after I gave her a big hug, coming back over (the fence), it seemed quite a bit higher,” he told NBC in an interview three nights after the race. “I mean, I’m exhausted at this point.”
Symmonds also spoke of receiving e-mails from professors and friends at Willamette, adding, “Bearcat nation’s real big right now.”
Former Howard Payne sprinter Greg Nixon, who won the Division III outdoor 100- and 200-meter dashes in 2006, qualified for the finals of the 400-meter run at the 2008 Olympic Trials. He is one of several student-athletes from Division III who participated in the Trials.
Dunn, who ran for Carleton in the Division III Men’s Cross Country Championships and earned all-conference honors in track, returns to the Olympics after finishing 28th in the race walk at the 2000 Sydney Games and 35th four years ago in Athens. He also attempted to qualify at Eugene in the 20-kilometer race walk, finishing eighth.
“I’m getting toward the tail end of it,” he told the Oregonian newspaper. “I’m 36, and even though guys do well into their late 30s and early 40s, this probably is the last one for me. It’s such a huge time commitment.”
Leer improved from a 10th place finish in the 1,500-meter run at last year’s U.S. Championships in Indianapolis, finishing ahead of current American mile record holder Alan Webb and less than a second behind qualifier Lopez Lomong in the event won by Bernard Lagat.
At Pomona-Pitzer, Leer won two Division III indoor mile titles, then became the only Division III man to win both the 1,500- and 5,000-meter runs in the same year at the 2007 outdoor championships.
Nixon, who initially played football at Howard Payne then won three Division III individual track titles after taking on that sport during his junior year, won the U.S. indoor 400-meter run last year and competed at the 2008 World Indoor Championships.
“Goes to show you anything is possible, with my start at Howard Payne to now my first full season on the world-class level,” Nixon told Howard Payne’s sports information office after qualifying for the Olympic Trials final. “To run for a chance to represent the U.S. in the Olympics is amazing.”
Symmonds now looks to follow in the footsteps of 2004 Olympic gold medalist Andrew Rock, a former Wisconsin-La Crosse student-athlete who was a member of the victorious U.S. 1,600-meter relay team in Athens.
© 2010 The National Collegiate Athletic Association