Growing up, BYU cross country athlete Richard Nelson knew he had a special talent for running.
The 5-foot-10, 146-pound senior from Spokane, Wash., excelled in both baseball and basketball, but found a knack for using his feet that ultimately led to a love for the sport of cross country.
“Running just kind of took over because I was good at it and was able to go the furthest with it,” Nelson said. “It came fast and I’m very competitive, so that drove me to do my best.”
Moreover, he comes from a strong pedigree of runners. His father, Doug, ran track at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., while older siblings Christine, Carolyn and Scott competed in track or other sports, paving the way for Richard and younger sisters Cami and Andrea.
“My older brother loved running and my family picked it up from there,” Nelson said. “We’ve become a long-distance running family over time.”
Nelson enjoyed a spectacular finish to the 2009 track season and is poised for another great year in both cross country and track. His success in the 3,000-meter steeplechase event began at the Mountain West Conference Championships where he placed second behind then teammate Kyle Perry and advanced to the NCAA West Regional.
At the regional, he came in first place to qualify for the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Ark.
The charge continued at the championship preliminaries as Nelson placed first overall with a time of 8:41.45, a personal best and 10th overall in school history. He advanced to the final event, where he placed 10th in the overall field of the nation’s top collegiate steeplechase runners. Perry came in first place. Nelson’s performance gave him All-American status to conclude the season in fashion.
“That was definitely the highlight of my running career so far,” he said. “It was a lot of fun winning with Kyle at nationals and it was also exciting to do so well at regionals.”
Nelson qualified to participate in the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships with Perry and former BYU All-American and Olympian Josh McAdams. Nelson barely missed the qualifying mark in the competition as he finished in 16th place at 8:52.41.
More importantly, he realized that he could compete with any runner in the country.
“To be there with those guys was awesome, and the strange thing is that I didn’t feel intimidated at all,” he said. “I realized they were having the same feelings that I was and that it was just like any other race. I want to use that approach with every race because I know I can compete at that level.”
As for cross country, Nelson hopes to build on a successful 2008 campaign in which he earned Second Team All-MWC honors and performed well at several competitions for the Cougars. The two-time Academic All-MWC recipient hopes to lead the team to a conference championship and build on the cross country legacy that Coach Eyestone has established at BYU.
“Coach Eyestone has been around a long time and he knows how to help us strive for excellence by coming up with team themes to remember those who have built this legacy at BYU,” Nelson said. “Conference is going to be tough this year with schools like New Mexico and others who will be coming after us.”
Eyestone is grateful for the leadership provided by Nelson, who was selected as a team captain by his peers.
“It’s a pleasure working with such an excellent young man,” Eyestone said. “He’s unassuming, confident, and leads by example. He’s liked and respected by his teammates and has the potential to become an All-American in cross country, as well.”
Nelson is quick to point out the reasons why the BYU cross country program is so successful.
“First of all, Coach Eyestone helps us to have fun and enjoy the spirit of competition,” he said. “He’s been in several Olympics and has competed at many levels, so he knows how to relate to us. What’s best is that he doesn’t overdo us; he’s smart and doesn’t drive us into the ground.”
With the recent personal successes, the exercise science major is making special preparations as to avoid any letdowns following an exciting junior year.
“I want to go out with a bang and have no regrets with how I prepared myself for this year,” he said. “I don’t want to leave this program with my junior season being the best of my career – I’d like to accomplish even more as a senior.”
To do this, he realizes he needs to put in the time, which doesn’t come easily. Student athletes must balance time between school, practice and social life, which in Nelson’s case is spending time with his wife, Shara, after the two were married in December 2008. He has classes until the early afternoon, practice from 3:30 to 6 p.m., then goes home for dinner and homework.
“I’ve found that the best way to be supportive is to show him I care about what he does,” Shara said. “He’s very dedicated and motivated to do well, so things can be hard when he’s gone, but I know he’s doing what he loves.”
Richard is appreciative of the sacrifices she makes in order for him to be successful.
“She’s very patient with everything I do and supports all of my running goals and future plans,” Nelson said, pointing out that practice usually takes up 15-20 hours a week on top of traveling to and from multiple out-of-state competitions. “She’s my biggest fan and gets just as nervous as I do before a race or when I’m competing out of town.”
Those future plans include running professionally and competing for a spot in future Olympics.
“I was there when Kyle Perry signed a contract to be sponsored by New Balance and thought that was pretty cool,” he said. “As for the Olympics, I can’t guarantee I’ll get a spot but I’m going to do my best to compete for one.”
Outside of competition, Nelson enjoys playing the guitar and hanging out with his teammates, who have become his best friends. The team has developed a love for whodi-ball, a mixture of handball and four-square used with a tennis ball where the circle dwindles one-by-one until the last person is crowned as the whodi champion.
“It’s a lot cooler than it sounds,” he said. “We play it all the time waiting for our plane at the terminal or checking in at our hotel.”
Nelson is quick to point out his experiences with running wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the supportive efforts of his family, wife and knowledge gained from his two-year mission to Vina del Mar, Chile, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Everything that I am and wanted to be I get from my parents, who have always been there for me and taught me the importance of hard work and persistence,” he said. “My mission taught me to look at everyone individually and to see from their shoes. I am no longer afraid to talk to people and I had many life lessons taught to me. The hard work carries over to running.”
Persistence also allowed Nelson to further his relationship with Shara during courtship.
“We were friends for a long time in the same ward and I was turned down on my first attempt to ask her out,” he said. “We still joke about it to this day. Persistence paid off for me.”
A model of hard work and dedication, Nelson will continue to compete for top times during his senior year and beyond.