The Olympic runner and his peers weigh in
Nick Symmonds, 800-meter World Championships silver medalist and former American record-holder in the beer mile, announced Tuesday via Twitter that he has been invited to compete on season seven of American Ninja Warrior.
Symmonds is, without a doubt, an amazing runner. But how will he fare when it comes to the full-body demands of ANW’s legendary obstacle courses? We can only speculate until he auditions on March 13. So that’s exactly what we’re gonna do. We talked to his track and field peers who have gone on to compete on the show. Their verdict on his chances? Not good.
Rose Wetzel, 32, is a former Georgetown runner and a 2:07 800-meter runner. She’s also ranked second in the world in the Spartan Race obstacle series, which is largely why she was invited to try out for ANW this year.
“There’s a certain degree of excellence and ambition that an athlete like [Symmonds] has in him,” Wetzel says, “and wherever he points that, he’ll do well simply because of his capabilities and his drive. I’m certainly rooting for him.”
But when pressed as to Symmonds’ chances of advancing through the first round?
“Is it likely? Probably not.”
Wetzel says that it comes down to grip strength especially, which is something most distance runners aren't particularly good at. Wetzel herself is a personal trainer, and her grip has developed far beyond the typical middle distance athlete and it's been further strengthened by obstacle racing. And even though Symmonds may lift weights, she predicts he’ll struggle in some of the more strength-based sections.
Now, Wetzel is still guessing at the exact demands of the event. But one man who knows them intimately is Levi Keller, an elite-level pole vaulter, firefighter, and ANW finalist in 2013. His thoughts on Symmonds’ chances?
“Not good,” he says.
Keller, 29, is quick to add that it’s not just Symmonds. It’s anybody. “It’s a really challenging course, especially if you haven’t been doing a lot of jumping and climbing,” he says.
It’s the combination of strength and coordination that gets a person through. Keller remembers watching an Olympic sprinter get knocked out of the first obstacle for this very reason: all that strength, but none of the smarts to bring it together. What helped Keller excel, besides the pole-vaulting background, was the parkour and amateur gymnastics he’d been doing since he was a kid.
But maybe the best person to ask is Symmonds himself. In a phone call with Outside Wednesday, Symmonds talked about the start of the idea, when he was injured last year and started working out intensely with his longtime strength coach Jimmy Radcliffe, who is also the strength and conditioning coach for the University of Oregon. As they lifted, Symmonds was watching the end of season six, and joked that they should film their own audition tape. They did it in July. On Monday, Symmonds got the call.
Symmonds talks about being an “all-around athlete, not just a runner,” and if he has any qualms about participating in the show, it’s not being able to devote more time to it. “Maybe in future years I can prepare as it should be,” he says.
Granted, he’s still drawn plenty of criticism from the track faithful, though when compared to auctioning off his shoulder and attempting to date Paris Hilton, the backlash is milder. Still, there’s annoyance in his voice when he talks about the comments that he should be focused on training for the track season. “I am training. I’m training to be a world champion in the 800,” he says. “I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.”
And he’s not afraid of a potentially season—or career—ending injury in this diversion. “That’s a chicken-shit way to live your life,” he says. “The rewards far outweigh the risks.”
The publicity alone is worth diving into the obstacle course. ANW drew over five million viewers last summer, up 10 percent over the previous year. Symmonds is right when he says he’d be hard-pressed to get that same reach at a track meet. This competition is about the Symmonds brand. It’s about the exposure to his sponsors, all of which, he says, are excited. His coach? That’s a different story.
“He asked if we were still on point with training, and if it would be a distraction,” Symmonds says of his Brooks Beasts coach Danny Mackey.
To prepare, Symmonds will be doing...nothing. At least nothing unusual. His focus, he says, is still on the summer’s World Championships in Beijing, China. On his chances, he seems to have a realistic outlook. “I think I’ve got a really good shot at making it through the first stage, barring some fluke,” he says. The second, which separates the climbers from everyone else, is where he anticipates the true challenge. He's hoping his raw athletic ability and a shot of adrenaline will get him through the event.
“If I was a betting man, I’d bet on first and go out on second,” he says. Still, he’s surprised himself in the past. “I’ll train hard, and the rest? It is what it is.”