Yes, he was a shameless self-promoter. Yes, we need more athletes like him.
In recent years, Outside has published more articles on Nick Symmonds than any other track and field athlete. Not that those articles necessarily had much to do with track and field. The following is a (by no means comprehensive) selection: “Nick Symmonds Wants to Be a Mountaineer”; “What Are Nick Symmonds’s Chances at American Ninja Warrior?”; “Olympian Nick Symmonds Attempts a World Record in the Beer Mile.” Also (lest there be any doubt): “Nick Symmonds Is a Man of Many Talents.”
Symmonds’s principal talent for the last decade and a half has been running a really fast half-mile. With all of his extracurricular pursuits, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Symmonds is among the most accomplished 800-meter runners in U.S. history. Only three American men have exceeded his personal best of 1:42.95. Along with two Olympic appearances and a World Championships silver medal, Symmonds has won six outdoor national titles in the 800.
On Thursday night, at the USA Track & Field (USATF) Outdoor National Championships, Symmonds ran his last competitive track race. He finished last in his heat during the preliminary rounds of the men’s 800, thereby failing to earn a spot on the national team for the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships, which will take place in London later this summer. His time of 1:51.52 was his slowest ever as a professional in an outdoor race, according to LetsRun.com.
But the result didn’t come as a surprise—to track fans or to Symmonds.
Ten days before the race, Symmonds predicted his fate: “I’m a pragmatist and I know what kind of shape I’m in. The U.S. is so deep in the 800 right now—I’m not going to make this team. . . My track and field career is going to come to an end at the 2017 USATF Championships.” This prophecy came in the opening segment of #NSLastLap, a daily video blog Symmonds made to document his final week as a professional athlete.
In many ways, the vlog, which was parceled out in installments on his YouTube channel, was a fitting send-off for Symmonds, who has always been an unapologetic self-promoter. Depending on where you stand, the project might seem like an exercise in extreme narcissism or a refreshingly candid look at an elite athlete’s build-up before a major competition.
Of course, the two things needn’t be mutually exclusive. In one of the #NSLastLap episodes, Symmonds returns to his high school in Boise, Idaho, (“I think you guys are really gonna like this!”), where he chats with his old coach and proudly notes that he still holds the school record for the 800-meters. In addition to plugs for his company Run Gum and his sponsor Brooks, there’s a lot of footage of Symmonds running in half tights, driving around, and dispensing training advice: “My number one rule of training: never wake up to an alarm clock.” There is much shirtlessness.
If that sounds like a transparent attempt to promote Run Gum, or the Nick Symmonds brand as a whole, it’s entirely consistent with the ethos of an athlete who has always been upfront and vocal about pursuing his financial interests.
“I’ve never really considered myself a runner,” Symmonds told Times reporter Jeré Longman in an article last January. “Running was a business of mine” and “a great way for me to market products.”
Over the years, it might have rankled certain track and field purists that Symmonds would occasionally talk about his profession as though it were an elaborate MBA thesis project. (Reflecting on his 5th place finish in the 800-meter final at the London Olympics, arguably the greatest men’s 800 race of all time, Symmonds referred to his performance as a “phenomenal product.”) However, by always keeping the economic realities of elite-level athletics in the conversation, Symmonds established himself as a champion of athlete rights—someone willing to stand up against the avarice of governing bodies like USATF and the International Olympic Committee. Whether it was criticizing what he considered excessively stringent rules on how he was allowed to promote his sponsors during major competitions, or advocating for a more athlete-friendly distribution of revenue from the Olympic bonanza, Symmonds was always eager to take stand. (This outspokenness extended to issues beyond the world of track and field; an avid hunter, he once wrote an open letter calling for a ban on handguns and assault rifles for all citizens besides police and military personnel.)
To be sure, Symmonds is hardly a latter-day Muhammad Ali, but there’s no question that the professional track scene in this country would have been far less interesting over the past decade without the self-styled provocateur from Idaho actively seeking the limelight. As I recently wrote, the sport could use a few more gregarious characters. This is particularly true at a time when some of its biggest stars choose to remain aloof in the face of increasingly ominous revelations about performance enhancement methods at the Nike Oregon Project–the country’s most prestigious running team.
Say what you will about Nick Symmonds, but no one can accuse him of being evasive towards the media. As someone who regularly writes about pro running, I’ve frequently been the beneficiary of Symmonds’s ask-me-anything attitude. For that reason, I’ll miss having him around.
Not that he’s really going anywhere.
After Thursday’s race, a cheery Symmonds told reporters: “I’m here to let you guys know, the last race I’ll ever run as a pro is the 2017 Honolulu Marathon on December 10. I’m going to be vlogging every single workout that I do between July 10 and December 10, so watch an old fat guy waddle around and try to get fit for 26.2.”