Yared Nugusse, 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, photo by Kevin Morris / @kevmofoto
For his sixth article in his column, From Lane One, Matt Wisner has writter about the 2021 Olympian, and future orthodontist, Yared Nugusse. He’s racing this weekend at the ACC’s and Matt Wisner opines about Yared’s amazing summer.
Yared Nuguse Can Do Whatever He Wants
By Matt Wisner
Olympian Yared Nuguse hasn’t raced in awhile, and some people are wondering why. He’s fine. (Probably more than fine if you know Yared. He doesn’t really ever race poorly.) He’ll open his cross country season this Friday (October 29) at the ACC Championships.
Nuguse hasn’t raced since the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he qualified for the Olympics in the 1500. In Tokyo, he scratched because of a quad strain. He had the choice to turn pro, as any collegian who qualifies for the Olympics probably does, but he returned to Notre Dame for another year of NCAA competition. “It was a pretty easy choice,” Nuguse told me. “I made that choice basically a year ago.” He’s in grad school and wants to finish his degree. He’s sat out of all the cross country races his team has run this fall, but he’ll make his debut this week at the ACC Championships.
Nuguse’s scratch from the 1500 in Tokyo was controversial, and I was going to pen an essay in his defense a few months ago when a bunch of people online (mostly Craig Engels diehards, I think?) were mad that Nuguse decided to pull out from the Olympics at the last minute, on the day of his 1500 prelim, which prevented Engels, who was the alternate, from racing.
Just this week, in The Lap Count newsletter, Kyle Merber wrote about Nuguse’s absence from Pre-Nats last weekend. “Sitting on the couch it was pretty easy to heroically claim that you would have lined up to hobble through the 1500 this summer in Tokyo,” Merber wrote. “But with each passing weekend that he still doesn’t race, maybe… just maybe he was actually really hurt?”
Merber insinuates that Nuguse could still be hurt. He’s not. Nuguse told me his late start to the cross country season was to give himself the proper time to come into his fitness. He told me he overcame his quad injury just a few weeks after the Olympics, which means he’s had about two months of healthy training. Nuguse’s absence from team competition this fall isn’t because of selfishness or ego; his decision to return to Notre Dame at all is an unselfish decision. His situation—qualifying for the Olympics while in college—is exceptional, and that’s why the arrangement of his racing schedule this fall is also exceptional. No normal collegiate athlete races into August.
Does it really matter if he doesn’t race until NCAAs in a month? His team doesn’t need him to qualify. They’ve probably already racked up enough points from their fifth place finish at Pre-Nats, and barring catastrophe, they should qualify for NCAAs out of the Great Lakes region, with or without Nuguse.
Merber’s writing also insinuates that Nuguse’s injury in Tokyo was illegitimate. My take is the same as it was in July: Nuguse earned his spot at the Olympics, and he can do whatever he wants with it. A lot of people seemed to think that Nuguse should have graciously let Engels race in his place, but I think that even if there’s a 1% chance of being able to race, the opportunity belongs to Nuguse.
Engels also had the chance to travel to Tokyo as the alternate to be on standby if any American had to pull out of the 1500. Being the alternate is kind of a nightmare situation though, mostly because of COVID protocols. One American alternate who chose to stay home told me, “It would’ve been like prison, and I wouldn’t have even been in the village, so it would’ve been a different experience.” So it makes sense that Engels chose not to go.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials, after Woody Kincaid had qualified for both the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000, he was asked if he’d scratch the 10,000 to allow the 35-year-old Ben True to compete at his first-ever Olympics. Kincaid said shortly, “I won’t give up my spot for Ben True. He’s not my teammate. I don’t know the guy personally. That’s a shame he’s come so close multiple times, and I wish him the best.” The Nuguse and Engels situation is similar. It may have been different if Nuguse’s friend had finished fourth at the Trials, but that wasn’t the case.
The 1,500m at the 2021 US Olympic Trials, (Yared Nuguse on the outside), photo by Kevin Morris / @kevmofoto
Some people would argue that there should be a benevolent Team USA coach who makes the decision to pull gimpy Nuguse from the race and enter Engels in his place, but other countries that appoint a supposedly impartial national team coach to make decisions like that often struggle to win the trust of their athletes.
Nuguse is known for his middle distance ability (He’s the collegiate record holder in the 1500 with a 3:34.68), but he’s basically cracked at everything he does and will make a difference on the grass this fall. He won the ACC cross country championships last year and was second the year before that. Last year, he was 23rd at cross country NCAAs, and if he can replicate that performance, he’ll score for his team—who placed second last year, only 27 points behind the champions from NAU.
Nuguse will help his team, then eventually go pro, then eventually be done with that, and then he wants to be an orthodontist. “As soon as I’m done running, I’ll apply to dental school and then be the orthodontist the 13 year old me dreamed of,” he told me. “My orthodontist was the coolest guy I ever met in my entire life.” Yared Nuguse can do whatever he wants, and I hope he does.