“It wasn’t until eighth grade that I started in track and field,” begins Dartmouth alum Adam Nelson. “I have to be honest. I went out for the track team because I didn’t make the baseball team. It turned out all right.”
What an understatement. Nelson is a two-time Olympic medalist, winning silver in the shot put in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, as well as the 1997 NCAA championship. He holds the Dartmouth shot put record of 19.89 meters, more than two meters better than the previous record (17.45), set in 1973. Nelson also played football for Dartmouth, lettering all four years (for a total of 12 letters). In his junior year, he helped Dartmouth football to a perfect season, a record 10 wins, and an Ivy championship.
Yet in high school in Atlanta, Ga., Nelson had never heard of Dartmouth until “I began receiving letters from some football coaches recruiting me to play at Dart’MOUTH’ College. Honestly, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it until I heard someone else say it.” He soon learned how to pronounce Dartmouth correctly, choosing it “because it was a great school with a great reputation for athletics.”
Recruited primarily for football, Nelson soon caught the attention of long-time field coach Carl Wallin. “He pulled me aside and said he could see a level of potential he hadn’t seen his whole career,” remembers Nelson. “It was he who encouraged me to pursue my first Olympic team.”
Nelson “finished dead last” in the 1996 Olympic Trial, but Wallin wouldn’t let him get discouraged. “He said to give it a shot, three years. The stuff Ivy grads do — the banking, consulting — will wait.” Nelson took Wallin’s advice, and still seeks it. “We still communicate regularly. He has been a constant source of inspiration, motivation, and education for the past nine years,” says Nelson.
Graduating with a degree in government in 1997, Nelson found another role model to guide his athletic career. “Alex Ghanotakis (a 1996-97 Dartmouth All-American in the hammer) was my teammate” according to Nelson, who went ahead to California, settled down, and began training. “He knew the coach, and laid the foundation I could build upon,” says Nelson.
The rest is history. Nelson medaled at Sydney in 2000, and earned a second silver in the 2004 Olympics. The 2004 competition was held at the Ancient Olympia, the stadium where the original Olympics took place. What was it like to compete where field events had taken place over 2700 years ago? “It was an amazing experience,” says Nelson, “You go through a tunnel and arch, and into a grass bowl filled with people. I still think about it 10 times a month.”
Nelson has been a professional athlete for nine years, and is outspoken about the need for athletes to have adequate financial support as they compete. In 2005 he even put himself up for auction on EBay. He was “purchased” (actually a one-month deal to advertise a “talking” medications bottle for use by blind and disabled patients) by MediovoxRX Technologies for $12,000, which “really helped,” according to Nelson. He also gained admission to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where he is currently pursuing his MBA.
Still competing professionally, Nelson has his sights set on the 2008 Olympics. “As long as I can train and am healthy,” says Nelson, “I think I can make the team.” After that, and the 2009 World Championships, he says he’ll be done. And then? “Ivy alums, there will be a gold medalist with an MBA looking for a job!”
This story was written by Stephen Eschenbach in 2006 in conjunction with the Ivy@50 celebration.