MOSCOW – Nick Symmonds grimaced as he crossed the finish line at the 2013 IAAF World Championships, then his face relaxed into a smile.
He had been so close to a gold medal in the 800 meters Tuesday night, but was beaten to the tape by Mohammed Aman of Ethiopia. Both had season bests, Aman in 1 minute, 43.31 seconds and Symmonds in 1:43.55.
Yet just as quickly as Symmonds was overtaken by Aman, his disappointment was replaced by happiness: In his fourth consecutive final in major international events (following the 2009 and 2011 world championships and the London 2012 Olympic Games), Symmonds finally reached the podium, claiming the silver medal. It was the best finish by an American in the men’s 800 and the first medal of any kind in the event since 1997.
“I had a great celebration planned, one of my better ones,” said Symmonds, 29, who placed fifth in London. “I spent all day visualizing how I was going to celebrate my win.
“I crossed the line and, of course, I was angry that I had come that close and wasn’t the champion, but at the same time, I’m going home with something to show for it. I really did everything I could to win tonight. I didn’t race scared; I put myself out there and ran for gold, so there’s no shame in finishing second.”
Symmonds said he was relieved he won’t go down in history as “the guy who couldn’t get it done in the finals.” But if he had won the gold, he allowed it would have been bittersweet without David Rudisha in the field.
Rudisha, the Olympic champion and world-record holder from Kenya, is out with a knee injury.
“That’s what makes an elite (athlete), that they’re never totally content,” said Symmonds, who has been blogging from the world championships for Runners World. “There’s always the sense of wanting more.
“This is enough to give me the joy and the peace of mind to stay here and continue throughout the season, but also enough fire for the furnace to keep me hot and training hard for 2016.”
LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 Olympic and 2009 world champion, captured the only U.S. gold medal of the night, winning the 400 with American teammate Tony McQuay taking the silver. Merritt ran a blistering 43.74 seconds, a personal best.
At the 2012 Games, the United States was uncharacteristically shut out of the final.
“I guess you can call it a comeback, but I don’t feel like I ever left,” Merritt said. “I’ve always continued to work hard and keep faith in my ability, spiritually and physically and mentally, to come here and put this race together, I was ready for it.”
Jenn Suhr, the Olympic pole vault champion, took the silver behind Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, who was lifted by a roaring home crowd. While Isinbayeva cleared 16 feet, ½ inch, Suhr’s best height was 15-9 ¾."They got their money's worth,” Suhr said. “It was one of the best pole vault competitions ever put on.”
Symmonds, a native of Boise, Idaho, who now lives in Springfield, Ore., had sacrificed his five-year streak as national champion in the 800 to get a medal at worlds. His coach, Mike Rowland, kept him from doing any speed work before the U.S. championships in late June and he had run only one 800 before the national meet.
“I begged him for speed,” Symmonds said. “He said, ‘You’ll make it. You might not win it, but you’ll make it, and you’ll win a medal this year.’”
He did it with some help from a friend. In the race in Luzhniki Stadium, Duane Solomon, the runner who succeeded Symmonds as U.S. champion, took the race out in a “hot pace.”
The first 200 meters went by in 23.6 seconds, and they finished the first lap in 50.28 seconds. Symmonds stayed on Solomon’s shoulder, and the two Americans remained 1-2 as they reached the final curve.
Then with 100 meters remaining, Symmonds said, “I flipped that switch like I did in London and at 750 (meters) I was pretty sure I was going to be the next world champion. But Aman’s tough. He finds a way to get to that line, and he did that tonight and that’s why he’s your world champion.”
In the last 20 meters, Symmonds could feel his legs get heavier and heavier with each step.
“I feel like I really raced for gold tonight,” he said. “I wasn’t content to sit in the back and try to hang on for dear life for a bronze or a silver.”
Symmonds felt this was his best year to medal at worlds. Next year he plans to move up to the 1,500 with hopes of doubling at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
While Symmonds and Aman were battling the final meters, Solomon was fading to sixth in 1:44.42.
“It just all came back to me from the first 200,” Solomon said. “I went out too hard. During the 800 you know that any little thing you do, it’ll catch up to you in the end. I’m just surprised I was able to hold on as long as I could.”
The two had discussed their game plan at lunch. “I’m kind of glad it went the way it did for Nick and I’m very proud of him,” Solomon said. “He ran very aggressive. If I didn’t get a medal, it was one for the U.S.”
“I’m disappointed for Duane,” Symmonds said. “I don’t know if I could have been a silver medalist without him in that race. … I would have been fighting traffic like I’ve done the last three finals, so my hat goes off to Duane.”
Although Symmonds wondered if he would have run a faster time if he’d been more conservative, he said he was “sick and tired of having the legs in the last 100, but not having a clear shot to the finish line. Tonight I risked running a slightly slower time to have great position.”
Symmonds said he’s been able to get back to the championship final so many times because he’s good at listening to his body.
“I’ve proven I’m probably the most durable one in the sport,” he said. “I’ve never had an injury that’s kept me out of one of these things.
He also credits his physique, acknowledging that he’s been “carrying a little bit extra weight on me.”
He then admonished the media, “You guys for the longest time said I was too bulky to run the 800, but it keeps me healthy so I’m going to keep doing it.”
Symmonds has also got a lot of mileage left. Compared to high school athletes who ran 70-80 miles a week, he ran four months out of the year and played ice hockey and fly fished the rest of the time.
In college, he went to a NCAA Division III university, Willamette, in Salem, Ore., where he trained six months out of the year.
“I didn’t start training year-round until I was 22,” Symmonds said, “And I always say that typically an athlete will have about 10 years of really intense training. You can start that at 14 and run till you’re 24 or you can start that at 22 and run till you’re 32.
“So that’s my plan, to make the 2016 team in the 800 and 1,500. I’ve proven I can win a medal now. I need to do it on the Olympic stage the next time.”
But his immediate plans are less ambitious.
“It’s been a long season,” Symmonds said. “Oregon’s beautiful in the fall. I plan on drinking some beers and catching some fish.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 13 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.