May 7, 2008
by Jeff Smith
Sunder Nix was arguably the country's top high school track and field athlete when he stepped foot on Indiana's campus as a freshman in 1980. In just one year's time, he was already a multiple Big Ten champion. In two year's time, he was a world record holder. After three years, he had become a U.S. national champion and capped his career off by earning Olympic gold during his fourth year. However his proudest moment came in 1986, when he finally earned the top honor of his career. His degree.
Born and raised in the small town of Sylacauga, Ala., until the age of 8 when his family moved to Chicago, Nix grew up with the mindset that education was priority one and everything else, including running, was secondary.
As one of the top 400-meter runners in the nation, Nix was lured to Bloomington by legendary track and field coach Sam Bell. The Hall of Fame coach enticed the young Chicago product by pointing out the number of Olympians that had come through Indiana's door prior to his arrival. Bell told him that he would receive a quality education and have a chance to become a star on the track.
At the time, Nix was looking at schools as far west as Arizona, south as Tennessee, and a few schools in his home state of Illinois. He had grown to understand and appreciate the Midwest values and wanted to stay close to home. When he returned from his recruiting trip and reflected on the tradition the Hoosiers' program had, he was sold.
And once he arrived in Bloomington and hit the track, off he went.
"I think my freshman year really set the tone for me," said Nix. "I came in and won both the Big Ten indoor (440 yards) and outdoor (400 meters) titles and beat the defending champion in both races."
But Nix points to his sophomore season in 1982 as the year when he began to realize the potential he had. At the National Sports Festival in Indianapolis, Nix was surrounded by friends and teammates when he set the world record in the 400 meters by reaching the line in 44.67 seconds - still an Indiana school record to date. Even with a successful gold medal attempt two years down the road, Nix looks back and still feels the win in Indianapolis was the biggest of his career.
"I think winning gold on the relay in 1984 was good for me, but I think the 1982 race in Indianapolis was still my biggest win, because it was an individual win," he said. "I barely won the race too. I won by half a step, but it gave me a lot of confidence moving forward."
Nix has always stressed the importance of keeping momentum in life, which is what he did so well during his career at Indiana. His career was a constant progression from the time he first arrived in Bloomington.
As a junior in 1983, Nix felt he was reaching top form until a foot injury prior to the Big Ten indoor meet limited his training schedule. Still, Nix surprised the field - and himself for the matter - by winning his third-straight 440-yard conference title. In fact, Nix later went on to capture the 600-yard national title at the NCAA Indoor Championships in a time of 1:10.51.
"I think that was a big surprise for me because of my injury," he said. "After the Big Ten meet, I took a couple of weeks off and had just done a lot of aerobic work, but I was not able to come back and win Big Ten outdoors."
No, but all he did in the summer was take home the U.S. National Championship in the 400 meters, earn a bronze medal at the World Championships and was honored with the Olympia Award.
He sealed his collegiate career with a fourth-straight 440-yard indoor title and captured his second 400-meter outdoor crown in 1984. During his winning indoor run, Nix set the Big Ten record of 46.40, which bested his previous conference record of 46.66. The record is now officially retired. Following the season he was named both Indiana's and the Big Ten's Athlete of the Year.
The time had come for Nix to show the world on track and field's biggest stage what he could do.
"One of the things that really helped me out with the Olympics is that I came to Indiana in the fall of 1980, just after the Summer Games," Nix said. "I was a senior in 1984, so I was able to be in really good shape after having a good freshman, sophomore and junior year. Time just fell in my hands."
And when it came time for the 4x400-meter relay in the 1984 Olympics, Nix shot out of the blocks in the leadoff leg and helped guide the U.S. to the gold medal.
When he arrived back in Bloomington, the support was overwhelming. And maybe a little embarrassing too.
"The response from everyone was very positive," he said. "A lot of students congratulated me on campus when I was going to class. The crazy thing though, was that they would take roll call and when the teacher got to my name, people would look at me funny. I was kind of embarrassed with the situation."
A dozen years after Nix won the gold in Los Angeles, he was enshrined on the walls of Assembly Hall as a member of the Indiana Athletics Hall of Fame. To this day when Nix makes trips to Bloomington, he finds himself humbled when staring at the wall that adorns his photo along with several other great Hoosier athletes.
"It's a nice and humbling feeling to know that you are going to be on that wall forever."
This past year, Nix teamed up with former Hoosier track coach Randy Heisler to be his assistant at Ball State. It's Nix's first major college coaching opportunity after volunteering as a track coach at local Indianapolis high schools over the past few years.
Recently when Ball State traveled to compete at Indiana, Nix took a group of his Cardinal athletes to that very same wall inside the Hoosiers' basketball arena.
"I took the them down there and showed them the Hall of Fame and I think they were in awe," he said. "I really worked hard to get there, but more than anything, I am proud that I graduated."
When looking back on his career, Nix has just one lone regret. He says he wished he would have moved back in distance and attempted to reach the 1988 Olympics in the 800 meters.
"That was one of my biggest mistakes," he said. "I think I could have been a better half-miler than a quarter-miler. As you get older, you get stronger, and I think it would have been easier to run."
Life has now come full circle for Nix. Nearly 25 years after setting school, conference and world records, being honored with several national awards and winning Olympic gold, Nix is now in position to help current student-athletes maintain the momentum and reach their ultimate dreams. Not to mention prove you are never too old to compete.
Nix remains an active runner, having captured three United States Masters championships as recently as 2004. He plans to return to the circuit to continue competing at a high level. To ensure his 46-year-old body is up to the task, Nix lifts five days a week and runs 15-20 miles during that span.
"I have always maintained a high level of fitness," he said. "It such a humbling feeling that I can still run in the 49 to 50-second range. In life you always have to keep the momentum going. You have to stay sharp."
Despite all his records, awards and accolades, Nix reiterates that none of it would have been possible if he hadn't graduated. When looking back on his time at Indiana, the humble Nix admits he is surprised by the success he had.
Yes, he was one of the nation's top runners out of high school and yes, he was lured to Indiana by a track coach and a tradition full of Olympians.
But when you ask Sunder Nix what the highlight of his college career was, his response his quick and three words long.
"Getting my degree."
Everything else was secondary, including that gold medal.