To the random student passing Drake Stadium on the way to class on May 14, it would have looked like a standard, early morning workout was going on.
In fact, both the past and the future of American Olympic track were within sight.
Johnny Gray, UCLA assistant track and field coach and the holder of the America record in the 800 meters since 1985, was timing future Olympian Nick Symmonds, the man who is the favorite to break the 27-year-old record.
“Johnny is the record-holder; it still holds up, but I’m chasing it down. … (Being timed by him) was very inspirational,” Symmonds said.
The chance for the current and possibly future record-holders to work together came about by chance ““ Symmonds was coming down to Los Angeles, and his publicist was able to set up the opportunity.
The workout did not consist of a formal coaching session but rather Gray timing Symmonds and offering pieces of advice.
“When you’re running … obviously, starting and stopping your own watch is impossible. Johnny was really attentive, and he said the right kinds of things that I needed to hear. It was an honor to be timed by him,” Symmond said.
The 800m takes a detailed training plan; at just two laps, its distance is between that of long distance and sprinting races.
Preparation, Symmonds said, not only relies on athleticism but timing.
“Tactics are huge; you train like a miler, then like a sprinter,” Symmonds said. “You basically spend an entire career honing those two aspects; you need to find that perfect two-week window in which you’re ready to race.”
Track as a sport has long been stuck in a rut, and Symmonds, as a young dynamic star in the sport, looks to change that. He wants to change the rules so that runners, much like race car drivers, can wear corporate logos while they run.
This is just one example of the way in which Symmonds is a new kind of runner, a track star for a new American generation.
“I know he’s a great runner, and any runner is a role model for younger guys like me,” said Sam DeMello, a redshirt freshman distance runner for UCLA. “We all aspire to be that fast someday.”
American track athletes have long been dominated by runners from other countries, and Gray saw habits common in American runners that he tried to correct in Symmonds so that he might hold up against international competition.
“Symmonds is known as a kicker. … In the big boys, you have to be more aggressive. We definitely worked on making him more aggressive,” Gray said.
Gray is not feeling any angst over the possibility that his record might be broken this year ““ as the saying goes, records were made to be broken.
“Anytime I can work with a talented athlete, it’s always a pleasure,” Gray said. “I did my best to break that record at the time, and if he happens to be the next American record-holder, that’s great.”
Symmonds did not downplay the opportunity to take the record, nor the work it would take him to get there.
“It would be a huge accomplishment. … Things would have to come together at the exact right time, but becoming an American record-holder would without a doubt be the highlight of my career.”