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Buckeye champion gears up for repeat performance
By Amy Saunders
The Columbus Dispatch Thursday January 5, 2012 9:40 AM
OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY
Nickles displays his winning form in the pole vault.
Even after a huge second-day rally, Heath Nickles wasn’t likely to win the decathlon at the Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships in May.
Personal records in the pole vault, javelin and 110-meter hurdles had propelled him from eighth place to second as the Ohio State University athlete entered the final event: the 1,500-meter run.
To take the title, Nickles needed to win by at least seven seconds — and, throughout the race, the decathlon leader was so close behind that Nickles could feel and hear him.
But to Nickles’ confusion, his Buckeye teammates were cheering wildly as he crossed the finish line: The University of Minnesota competitor had fallen, his legs having given out toward the end of the grueling, 10-event competition.
When Nickles realized he had captured the championship, he fell to the track and began crying for the first time as an athlete.
“You realize how big it is, how competitive it is, and it just takes over,” he said of the emotion. “I knew what it was coming down to — the pressure I had to win.”
Nickles will start on the path to defending his title at Friday’s Buckeye Classic, a rare home meet for the Ohio State men’s and women’s track teams.
Headed into the 2011 indoor season, Nickles didn’t expect to do well; he just wanted to compete.
The previous August, he underwent surgery to reconstruct and stabilize his ankle, which he had sprained so many times that he often worried it was going to snap as he landed during the pole vault.
The surgery was his fourth on the ankle and foot. He was redshirted his freshman year after fracturing the navicular bone in his foot.
Now, in his junior season, health is no longer hampering his ability to train for the outdoor decathlon and the indoor heptathlon — both two-day challenges involving sprints, hurdles, high and long jumps, pole vault and throwing events.
Before college, Nickles had never tried many of the events. But at Columbus Grove High School near Lima, he was a running back on the football team and a state champion in both the pole vault and 300-meter hurdles.
With those events considered the hardest to pick up, Nickles was recruited for the decathlon. He is well-suited to the competion because he prefers variety.
“Even the world-class guys are still learning every day,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to master any of these events.”
In this season’s first meet last month, Nickles competed in the heptathlon to test the results of his offseason speed and strength training. Head coach Robert Gary calls the Golden Flash Gala at Kent State University “a basic fitness checkpoint, not even a target.”
But Nickles achieved personal records in five of the seven events while setting a school record with a score of 5,602 points.
Given the performance, Gary thinks Nickles can set his sights on another Big Ten title and success at the NCAA Championships.
“He’s always been the toughest of competitors, but sometimes, his body hasn’t been too willing,” Nickles said.
“His competitiveness and health are finally coming through at the same time.”
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