How it took a village to raise track champion Gunnar Nixon
By SCOTT WRIGHT, Staff Writer, Comment on this article 0 Published: April 22, 2011
EDMOND — Imagine that it was your dream to compete in the Olympic Games, and as a high school senior, you earned the chance to qualify.
His performance at the Arcadia (Calif.) Invitational earlier this month qualified him to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials for the 2012 Games, but he’s going to pass. Doesn’t feel like he’s quite ready for that level of competition.
Instead, he will try to qualify for next year’s World Junior Championships.
“I just feel like I need to do the World Juniors,” said Nixon, who has signed with the University of Arkansas. “It’s like a steppingstone to the Olympics, so that’s what I want to do.”
Not many high school athletes have the kind of discipline to turn down such an opportunity. But Nixon is different from most high school athletes in a number of ways.
Nixon is an Oklahoma product in every sense of the phrase.
He was born in Weatherford and raised in Tulsa until he moved to Edmond as a high school sophomore. In addition to the coaching staff at Edmond Santa Fe, he has been helped by coaches from Guthrie and Weatherford, as well as a few other Edmond folks.
The work of all of them together — most notably Nixon himself — has produced one of the state’s most accomplished track and field athletes at the high school level.
And before long, we might need to drop that part about “at the high school level.”
“I’ve truly never had an athlete as talented as Gunnar,” Edmond Santa Fe coach Carl Hawkins said. “I really expect big things out of him in college, and the thing about it is, he does too. Some kids say, ‘I’m gonna do this.’ But Gunnar, I think he knows, ‘I can do this.’”
Earlier this month, Nixon set the national record for points in the decathlon by a high school athlete using international implements, winning the Arcadia Invitational for the second year in a row.
He has competed, and succeeded, on the national and international level, in events like the Youth Olympics in Singapore last summer. But his Olympic goal will have to wait.
“In 2016, I’ll be 23 years old, so that’s the first year I’m looking at,” he said. “And then 2020. And there are the World Championships in the years in between.”
Building this track and field prodigy has been a team effort.
It started with Nixon’s talent, determination and discipline. Then came the guidance of Hawkins, himself a high school decathlete.
Hawkins’ knowledge was exactly what Nixon needed. By the time he came to Edmond, Nixon had already won a junior national decathlon as a freshman at Tulsa Union. Hawkins simply helped to fine-tune his skills.
“At the beginning, I could work with him on the basics and get him going in the right direction,” Hawkins said. “That first year, I was able to give him a good foundation.
“As he progressed, he needed a little more specialization in some areas.”
Hawkins’ specialty was in the hurdles, but for help with the pole vault, he contacted Guthrie coach Gary Boxley. And Ralph King, another coach in the Edmond school district, has helped out as well.
For some guidance in the throwing events, Nixon’s father got in touch with a longtime family friend, Brent Bell of Weatherford, who has coached some of the state’s top throwers.
Then by coincidence, Lamar Garrett, a former Santa Fe high jumper, was back at the school looking for an opportunity to jump-start a coaching career of his own.
Garrett won a junior-college national championship in the high jump before going on to jump for Kansas State.
“He and Gunnar hit it off right away,” Hawkins said. “That’s when Gunnar took off in the high jump. He cleared 7 feet that year, with Lamar’s help.
“It’s nice to be able to let some other people, in their specialty, do what they do.”
Working with Nixon was Garrett’s first real experience as a coach.
Now, he’s back at Kansas State as a volunteer assistant, but coaching Nixon spoiled him.
“I was just trying to get a little coaching experience and that just kind of landed in my hands,” said Garrett, who still stays in close contact with Nixon about his workouts and competitions. “He listens. You don’t have to fight with an ego, and that’s not always the case with a talented athlete. It was my first experience in coaching and he made it real easy.”
That coachability is another quality that sets Nixon apart.
“You tell him one thing and he can correct the problem on the next jump,” Boxley said. “He’s a student of the sport.”
And ultimately, Nixon’s success comes back to his commitment to being the best he can be.
Nixon carefully watches his diet and workout sessions as he tries to add some upper-body muscle to his 6-foot-4, 175-pound frame, and he keeps a strict eye on his sleeping patterns.
“I know my body really well,” Nixon said. “My freshman year, I stopped drinking pop and eating bad foods and I started seeing my improvement go up. With sleeping, just go to sleep at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every morning, even on the weekends, so that your body is used to it.
“It’s hard at first, but once you’ve done it for a couple of years, it’s just what you do.”
Soon, Nixon will have one of the best college coaching staffs teaching him at Arkansas.
Combined with his physical and mental makeup, there’s no predicting where the ceiling of his competitive career might be.
“He’s a knowledgeable kid who knows what he wants to accomplish. And those are few and far between,” Boxley said. “When he gets to Arkansas, he could be a placer at nationals all four years, and maybe win a couple.”
“He’s got very high expectations and he truly believes he can accomplish them,” Hawkins added. “And I think that’s part of what gets you to that next level.