Nick Symmonds is Leaving the Sport Better than He Found It

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S: Yeah that’s just so sad. And speaking of … Let’s talk about your criticism of the powers that be of track and field. I’d kind of like to dig a little deeper. If someone was, you know, just graduated from college, was an all American, really close to being competitive on the world stage, wants to become an elite runner, how would it go for her? What would be the challenges that she’d face? What would her… how much money would she make? What kind of impediments would the USATF be putting in her way? What would it be like?

N: It would be, it’s gonna be difficult. Unless you are in the top-top of each event, and I’m talking not just number 1 in the US, but like top 10 in the world, you’re gonna struggle to pay your bills and that’s just the reality. You might be able to count if, let’s say you’re top 10 in the US. You’re gonna get a little support from the USATF but it’s not enough to pay the bills.

S: What do you think you’d get?

N: Ok, so if you’re an elite marathoner you can make great money but you’re only going to race twice a year. But you’d better be really good, because if you miss one of those races you know you might lose funding from a sponsor or you’re gonna lose appearance fees… uh… You know let me put it this way, I know Olympic medalists who live below the poverty line. You don’t become a runner because you want to make money, you become a professional runner because you want to see how good you can be. Because you’ve invested in this sport for years, sometimes decades, and you owe it to yourself to find out just how great you can be. But you don’t become a professional runner because you want to make millions of dollars.

Nick competes in his Brooks jersey
S: No, that’s true. Why do you think so many people, especially in our country, we haven’t invested a lot into the sport of running and our running athletes? What is it that drives you, what is it that drives the ones that aren’t as successful as you but keep trying and trying? Why do so many of us strive to be our best, even when it’s not lucrative and there probably isn’t going to be a payoff or an Olympic medal or glory or fame?

N: I think I’m someone who can really speak to this, because I chose a Division III school. I didn’t go to a DI school where I got a scholarship. I ran for four years in college, just because I loved running, because I wanted to see how fast I could run. There was an intrinsic value to it, of staying fit and being out with my friends in nature and traveling around the Pacific Northwest and racing in these beautiful settings, and I felt like I had invested so much in my legs and I wanted to realize the gains of that investment. There was such a fantastic high that came from running a PR and it’s addicting. And that’s what kept me running as a pro when I was only, when I was barely [laughs] barely making enough to live off of those first couple years out of school.

It was because I wanted to see how good I could get. I had invested at this point almost a decade of my life running competitively and I still wanted to see how good I could ultimately be and I knew my best years lay ahead of me so, you know, these athletes that live below the poverty line and struggle, it’s admirable because it’s truly, they’re just trying to find out how great they can be.

And this romanticized idea that the runner needs to starve and be out there you know really really living like a college kid trying to see how good they can be, it’s messed up. It’s admirable, but it’s not right in the sense that there are billions of dollars exchanging hands and there are many, many millions of dollars being made in track and field and they’re just not going to the athletes. These athletes that live below the poverty line, it doesn’t have to be that way. If we change one or two of the rules in track and field, we would be able to lift almost all of those athletes out of poverty.

S: Yes. Yeah, okay, so on the Runners Connect podcast you said that you would like to get rid of the corporate sponsorship of USATF. Nike, basically.

N: I didn’t say that, I don’t believe that there should be endemic sponsors. I think there’s a conflict of interest when you use endemic sponsors to sponsor USATF.

S: Yes. So from what I understood that would bleed like half of the budget of USATF.

N: Maybe less!

S: Maybe less.

N: But you know what, they don’t need a monster 40 million dollar budget, they need to stop paying [it’s CEO] Max Siegel 1.7 million dollars for doing a crappy job. They need to stop paying their execs these inflated salaries, they need to stop traveling on private jets, they need to stop abusing their power. If they do that then they really don’t need that extra 20 million that Nike writes them every year.

S: Sure, sure. So I think one thing with the USATF stuff, and this is something that I am really interested in being an attorney, I feel like you have to sort of set up the facts so people really understand what the arguments are. And I think it’s so confusing, right? The USATF structure is confusing, its relationship to the IOC is confusing and WADA and USADA, it’s really confusing for the average person.

N: Of course. It’s confusing for the average track and field athlete who lives this every day. The majority of agents and athletes don’t fully understand this complex set of rules either.

S: And it’s not even just the complex set of rules, it’s the structures of these bodies, what they’re supposed to do, what they are doing, who’s involved, what their purpose is … I think it’s just all this big mess, you know? And I think that when I hear you criticizing it, I know it’s coming from a place of truth, like just as a human being. There’s truth to what you’re saying, but it’s just so hard I think to have an effective message, when it’s really unclear to most people what the hell you’re talking about, do you know what I’m saying? Does that make sense?

N: Of course. You know it’s one of the reasons why after six or seven years of banging my head against the wall I said, ‘Trying to change public perception is going to be very difficult, I’m going to pursue a different path.’ And we’re gonna try to change this through corporate litigation. My company Run Gum is suing USATF and USOC for violating US Anti-Trust law. If I can’t get this changed through public opinion than I’ll get it changed through corporate litigation.

S: I think like with anything changing, it’s multi-faceted. There are many different ways and you need to find what’s most effective for you and you’re one person you can’t do it all, right? So I really admire that you try one way, it doesn’t work, then you try a different way.

N: You know, Coach Sam and I we’ve been doing this for 20 years professionally and we feel we owe the sport a lot. The memories and friends that I’ve made, the money that I’ve earned, the experiences I’ve had, my life is just really blessed and I think a lot of that comes from the beauty of track and field, the purity that it should have. And we want to leave this sport better than we found it. We want to make sure the next generation can really find a sport that’s clean and fair and lucrative and we’re passionate about the sport. In its essence it is one of the most pure sports that exists. But you’ve got a lot of crooks at the top stealing money and authorizing or condoning poor behavior or illegal behavior in some cases, and that’s just not right. And Coach Sam and I aren’t going to put up with that.

S: Yeah trying to get into establishing the baseline for all your criticism and your litigation and all that, I think that’s beyond the scope of one conversation.

N: [laughing] Yeah, it’s complicated.

S: So why should Joe the Plumber [laughs] care about track and field? Why should America invest in track and field athletes?

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Cinnamon made Salty Running, works on movies and TV and drinks lots of coffee. She is on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is an eclectic mix of finding wholeness as an average runner, celebrating her faster peers, curious reactions, satirical humor and more.

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6 comments

  1. I loved this interview and really appreciated a lot of the things he had to say, in fact he surprised me a few times. I really appreciate his thoughts on the doping situation (black and white when it comes to breaking the rules) but also acknowledging that grey area. As well as on genetics and when it comes to intersex/trans athletes. As someone who admittedly is VERY grey (I rarely see things in black and white, though I agree that if you break the law or rules…it’s pretty clear) its nice to read that I’m not alone in believing it isn’t always as simple as yes/no etc. Same thing with the PETA stuff, you can eat meat/hunt/fish and still believe in animals being treated properly etc.

    1. He’s a very talented guy all around – athlete, pitch-man, entrepreneur, advocate, conversationalist … I was impressed and I really enjoyed talking to him. I think the one thing that was most surprising to me is that he possesses humility. He is confident, opinionated, and assured, but knows his place in the world too. He is grateful for his gifts, his success, and aware of the power those things afford him and is committed to doing good work with that power. How can you not be a fan?

  2. Great interview. Nick does come across a little cocky and brash at times, so it was great to see something more long-form and get to hear his thoughts. I enjoyed this obviously thoughtful responses.

    I really appreciated his comments on the USATF — as a “sub-elite” (apparently, according to Spikenard’s article posted last week!), I ask myself somewhat regularly if I need to join USATF. But I struggle to see the benefit for me as an athlete, and I don’t think Siegel needs my money for jet fuel.

  3. Love this guy and what he has brought to the sport…and I’m not just talking about the gum 🙂 I had previously listened to the Run to the Top Podcast and this was a great change up from all the usual stuff you hear from Nick. Thank you!!