A Stubborn Success
Feb. 6, 2008
When DeDee Nathan was a senior at Indiana University in 1990, several of her track and field competitors from across the country often greeted her with a common question.
"You haven't graduated yet?"
Nathan's career was not marred by injuries prompting medical redshirts and a sixth year of eligibility, which would ultimately lengthen her stay in Bloomington. In fact, Nathan spent just four years at Indiana, but was so competitive from the onset of her college career, several followers believed she had been there much longer than she actually had.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Nathan and her family moved to Ft. Wayne, Ind., early on in her life and became involved in track and field in sixth grade. She would later become an eight-time high school state champion and earn interest from colleges across the country. She was receiving weekly letters from powerhouse track programs in California, Florida, Tennessee and Texas. Ultimately though, Nathan wanted to remain close to her family in Indiana and narrowed her choices down to Indiana and Purdue. The difference in her visits to both schools was drastic.
"I really didn't have any knowledge about the recruiting process when I was young, but my stepfather wanted me to go to Purdue," Nathan said. "I visited the campus, but the atmosphere there was a little different for me and it really didn't feel like home."
Following her trip to Indiana, Nathan fell in love with Bloomington and knew that was the place for her.
"I can't even explain how that (visit) changed my outlook on life," she said.
Upon arriving to Indiana in the fall of 1986, Nathan, who had previously been prepped to compete in four events in high school, was now being bred as a heptathlete for the Hoosiers. She was well versed in the hurdles, as well as relay and long jump events. According to Nathan, preparing for the heptathlon was the only way Indiana head coach Sam Bell felt he was going to maximize her potential.
"He said that in order for him to get what he needed out of me, he was going to have to work me," she said.
After a false start in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA Championships put an end to her freshman campaign, Nathan returned in 1988 to win the Big Ten titles in both the indoor and outdoor long jump competitions, while placing fourth with All-America honors in the event at NCAA Indoors. She followed with an All-American junior season, highlighted by another fourth-place result in the NCAA long jump and a sixth-place finish in the 400-meter hurdles after claiming the conference championship.
During her time at Indiana, the Hoosiers were among the top three at the indoor conference meet, which included the 1988 title, and the top seven at the NCAA Championships. In the outdoor season, Indiana's lone top-10 finish at the national meet came in Nathan's senior season with a seventh-place showing.
"We were trained and taught to be a team and a family," Nathan said. "We all sacrificed individually to make sure the team was strong as a whole. In that process, we ended up going to NCAAs because we competed like that in the Big Ten. You had Suzy Favor at Wisconsin and other greats in the conference at that time and in order to keep up with your competition, you had to be pushed. One of my first collegiate races was at the Drake Relays in the 400-meter hurdles against the Olympic champion. I didn't win, but I got a personal best out of the race."
The work ethic instilled in Nathan during her college years led her to establish a one-track mind when competing. No matter what event or at what level, Nathan was going to be sure others knew she was there. The stubborn approach eventually became her lifelong mindset.
"Regardless of whether or not I won or lost, others were going to know that I was in the race," Nathan said.
She claimed the Big Ten Indoor Pentathlon Championship with a score of 4,157. She responded in the outdoor season with a successful defense of her 400-meter hurdles title and another long jump victory. At the NCAA meet, Nathan was seventh in the long jump and broke the 1984 school record in the heptathlon with a total of 5,855, which was good for second place overall.
She continued the momentum in international competition, winning the 1991 Pan-American Games in the heptathlon. Nathan placed fourth at the 1992 Olympic Trials with a personal best of 6,162 points, but failed to qualify. She then took home the bronze medal at the 1995 Pan-Am Games and recorded a new personal record of 6,283 points with a fourth-place finish at the USA Outdoor Championships.
She would "PR" again in the 1996 Olympic Trials with a total of 6,327, but missed out on an opportunity to compete in Atlanta with a fourth-place finish.
Disappointment was setting in after two failed attempts to qualify for the Olympics, but Nathan's persistence and stubbornness would not allow the dream to die.
Nathan won the pentathlon at the 1999 World Indoor Championships, had set a new PR of 6,577 in the heptathlon during the outdoor season, and was ranked No. 1 in the country and No. 3 in the world entering the 2000 season. At the 2000 Olympic Trials, her third attempt of achieving her ultimate dream, Nathan needed only 6,243 points to defeat Shelia Burrell by four points to stamp her ticket to Sydney, Australia.
Her victory also made her Indiana's first female athlete to represent the U.S. in the Olympics, a distinction that is still very special to her today.
"For me, it was about continuing to do things through adversity," she said. "I had a lot going on in my personal life at that time and I just had to get up every morning and get after it. I had been to every major track meet there was, but the Olympics was the last one, and I made it."
George Freeman, who first met Nathan when he was a coach at Indiana, would later mentor her in her quest for the Olympics. Once his prized pupil had qualified for the Olympics, he remembers how unselfish she was in her preparation for Sydney.
"She was more concerned about her family an friends who traveled out there," Freeman said. "She wanted me to be the go-between, so I helped her family out there so she wouldn't have to worry about all that."
A score of 6,150 in Sydney was good for ninth place overall at the Olympics. It was certainly not the finish Nathan was looking for, however at the age of 32 and with a nagging Achilles, she knew just being there was as good as any medal-winning performance.
A devout Christian, who attends church four times a week and would one day like to become a foster mother or group home mom, Nathan came to realize in the heat of battle what her purpose in Sydney truly was.
"I was on the long jump runway and did not have a good jump at all," she said. "I was walking back to the apron and I heard a voice that said, `I am pleased with you.' It was God telling me that this trip was not about me and that the journey was meant for me to go back and realize that I didn't have to do my best."
Looking back on her storied career, Nathan says a number of doors had opened for her and she just simply walked through them. She believes the more discipline she became in her faith, the easier things were for her.
"As the scripture says, `You will prosper as your soul prospers.'"
Following the 2000 Games, Nathan continued to compete. She was the 2000 and 2001 U.S. Champion and finished seventh at the 2001 World Championships and fourth at the Goodwill Games.
In 2003, Freeman, who affectionately refers to Nathan as an "old gray mare" having tired three times for the Olympics, accounts the surprising phone call he received from her just nine months prior to the 2004 U.S. Trials, inquiring about a fourth run at it.
"She called me out of the blue and said she wanted to try it again," he said. "I said, `For this Olympics?' I knew we were up against a battle, but I could tell this was for other reasons. This was her faith; this was her sermon and her way of getting to people."
In the fall of 2007, Indiana recognized its most decorated heptathlete and seven-time Big Ten champion with an induction into the school's Hall of Fame.
Interestingly enough, while Nathan referred to the distinction as a tremendous honor that left her humbled, she noted it was also a unique reward.
"In a way, they honored me for being stubborn," she said. "I just refused to quit until I finished what I set out to accomplish."
Indeed the honor was long overdue for the Hoosier Olympian, who also has excelled in the classroom. Nathan earned two undergraduate degrees and a master's in human development and family studies from Indiana. Currently an educator in Indianapolis where she serves as the dean of students at an area high school, Nathan is working on a second master's in administrative education with hopes of becoming a principal some day.