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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Olympic Runner, Selim Nurudeen

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Sports taught us all that you are not the top dog, and most of the time you won’t be the top dog...

Olympics Day 11 - Athletics
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 07: Selim Nurudeen of Nigeria, Gregory Sedoc of Netherlands and Andrew Turner of Great Britain compete in the Men’s 110m Hurdles Round 1 Heats on Day 11 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 7, 2012 in London, England.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Back when I did this interview (in February), we were all still filled with anticipation for the 2020 Olympics. Even though the Olympics have been postponed until 2021, I definitely didn’t want to hold this story for that long, because I very much enjoyed writing this one. For this week’s Throwback Thursday post, I have a brand new interview with former Notre Dame Fighting Irish track and field runner, Selim Nurudeen (Class of 2005). And without further ado, here it is!

Notre Dame Olympic Runner Selim Nurudeen

Most of our lives are filled with challenges, adventures, and adversity. Selim Nurudeen’s life has been no different. The son of an anesthesiologist, his family moved around a lot as his father journeyed through his medical training, residency, and eventually a permanent job. Growing up in a house that moves you around teaches you many great skills including being able to adapt to new surroundings, and to make new friends. Skills that are useful throughout our lives as we continue to travel along our own personal journeys. Selim headed off to Notre Dame thinking he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor, but life has a way of taking us in directions that we never would have seen. Where did Selim’s path take him, you ask. This is Selim Nurudeen’s story.

“I moved around a lot growing up as a result of my dad’s career in medicine. We started out in Atlanta (for 10 years), then moved to North Carolina for his residency (for 4 years), and then we moved to Texas which is where I went to high school. I did not start running track until I was 13-years-old. I started running by racing with my older sister (which we did a lot) and she used to beat me all the time. My main love, however, was basketball. I played basketball more than anything else and track was my backup sport. It was something I did when it was not basketball season. I played basketball and ran track in high school. When it came time to start looking at colleges I was looking at Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Arkansas and Duke. My top two picks were Georgia Tech and Notre Dame because I wanted a school that had a good balance between sports and academics. Arkansas actually had one of the best track programs in the country, and but in hindsight I lucked out as Arkansas had a complete coaching change the next year, which can definitely be precarious for athletes that are already there. Arkansas recruited me the hardest, with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech next in line.”

“The visit to Notre Dame absolutely won me over. I connected with both the students and the environment. I had the most fun during my visit to Georgia Tech, but something about Notre Dame connected with me on multiple levels. During my visit, I stayed with a triple jumper, Quill Redwine. He ended up being a mentor to me and we are great friends to this day. He was an outstanding host. He did not sugar coat what Notre Dame was or what kind of experience I was going to have there, and that showed true to my time at ND. I was not big on the Greek life thing. I knew what I was going to college for and that was to get an education, and it was a good environment for me to do that. Of course, I enjoyed going to a party, but I had goals that I wanted to attain at Notre Dame. My parents saw the 97% graduation rate at Notre Dame and they were sold.”

The Notre Dame Years

Of course, when you get to college, there is a transition from doing academics and sports on a high school level, to now performing and competing on a college level. Selim talked about what this transition was like for him. “I think the biggest transition for me was being able to find my balance. It was a challenge for me to find the balance between keeping up with my schoolwork and running track at the college level. Classes were more challenging, there was more travel to the different meets, the people you were running against were so much more talented, and there was a lot more anticipation. Coming into college I came really loaded with the notion that I came here to do this, this and that. There was not much time for me to adjust. ‘I’m here to run and study and get all of this done.’ All of the responsibilities in the classroom were a bigger challenge for me than the competition on the track. I was at Notre Dame to work, and my fate was completely in my hands. Everything I did, or did not do was all up to me; if I wanted to be great, it was up to me to do it. There was so much in your own hands that was completely up to you. I think that athletes make the transition from high school to college so much quicker because they have to. Another big transition for me was the pressure. There was much more pressure on you in college than there ever was running in high school. In college, you have to hit a certain time to even get invited to a meet. I put a lot of pressure on myself, maybe too much pressure. That was a huge adjustment for me, to compete on that big of a stage right out of the gate.”

Many of us set off to college knowing exactly what we want to do when we grow up. Some of us completely and without pause follow through with those goals. And the rest of us (myself included), find out that what we thought we wanted to do is not exactly as we had expected, and set out to chart a new path. Here is what happened to Selim.

“My dad was an anesthesiologist, and that was kind of the family trade, everyone went into medicine. I was pre-med at Notre Dame for 2 1/2 years and I was miserable. My grades were fine, I was getting As and Bs, but it was awful. My classes were like warfare, and track was the easy part of my life because school was so difficult. I was at a point where I was depressed. I did not want to go to medical school. I just wanted to run. What if I wanted to go to the Olympics? How could I possibly balance training for that and medical school? And then I heard my dad talk about the passion he had for medicine and that shined a light on the passion I did not have for medicine.”

“I did, however, have a passion of my own. I had been drawing all my life. A triple jumper on the Notre Dame Track team, Scott Kelly, was drawing as we were traveling on the team bus one day, and I asked him what he was working on. He explained to me that he was an Industrial Design major and was designing shoes for a project in one of his classes. In his classes, they were designing products from ideation through to the point where they executed with engineers to get the products designed. Right there I thought, ‘where do I sign up?!’ I set up a meeting with one of the professors who was in charge of the degree program and showed him some of my work, and he told me I had a natural talent for design.”

“I talked to my parents about the possibility of my switching majors to Industrial Design and they were very skeptical. The professor I spoke with reached out to my parents and reassured them, explaining that I was in very good hands in this program. At that point in my education I had already completed all of my pre-med requirements, and so in my junior year I switched majors, overloaded my schedule with design classes, and never looked back. There was a national housewares design competition, and the Industrial Design program at ND was not that big compared to some of the programs at other schools, but at this competition, I ended up finishing in second place. It completely blew my mind, and at the same time, it gave me the justification to prove that I was where I was supposed to be. At that moment my parents knew I was on the right path.”

Every athlete has a unique relationship with their coach: some are thick as thieves, and some are like oil and water. Selim talked to me about his relationship with his track coach at Notre Dame and how he helped him develop both on and off the track.

“I drove him crazy, all the time. My track coach was Coach John Millar, and he was the men and women’s sprint coach. And yes, I drove him crazy. I did not let him coach me very much. I got so upset with myself, and put so much pressure on myself, that he as my coach would have to run interference between me and myself. ‘You’re fine!’ he would say. We had a very strong relationship. It was cool because he was able to keep it simple for me, as he knew that I was going to overthink everything. He gave me the knowledge that I needed. I remember he would tell me, ‘when you’re hurdling, all you have to do is raise your arm higher when you’re going over the hurdle.’ He was able to simplify his instructions to me by giving it to me in certain cues. I was also able to apply that to my homework. I was always making everything more complicated that they needed to be. I started to look at it like this: Figure out the one thing that you need to do first, and once you figure that out, often times it takes care of everything else. A lot of this is muscle memory, so all you have to do is find the one thing that you need to do that sets precedence over everything else. Once I figured that process out, it helped me in both track and field and in my academics. I used to treat track as if it were life and death. No one was making it that way for me; I was doing it to myself.”

“After I had taken my first general chemistry test, I called my mom crying and told her I was sure I had failed it. Then, with the curve (which at the time I had no idea what a curve even was), I ended up with a B! It is funny, I loved taking organic chemistry, and I totally got it, but I hated taking general chemistry. And I still don’t understand general chemistry to this day!” (laughs) When I was in school, I was so focused on getting good grades and getting certain times on the track. Now, when I look back on it, college is more about what you learned when you came away from those things, and not what grades you earned. It is funny, I do not remember many of the times I ran, but the lessons I learned from the different situations I was in, that is what I remember. And that’s what lead me to where I am today.”

Here it is the question that my subjects either love or hate. What was your favorite sports memory from your time at Notre Dame?

“My favorite track and field moment at Notre Dame was at an indoor conference during my senior year. I had won the year before, and my time broke the meet record in the 60-meter hurdles. After that performance, everyone expected me to win again my senior year. I had a rival who ran for Rutgers. He was not a great hurdler, but he lived to run against me. He would always run his fastest when he ran against me, and then he would never run that fast ever again. I just knew my senior year that he was going to bring it. I ran decently in the prelims. We were at this terrible track in Syracuse that was falling apart. When we ran the finals, my block slipped, and as a result, my rival ended up beating me. However, they ended up calling the race back, and had us run it again. People were so mad. They were staring dagger looks at me. They had us run the 60-meter hurdles again after the 60-meter dash, which was also an event I ran.”

“It actually worked out for me because they could not use the excuse that everyone else had to run a race while I had to rest, because I had to run the 60-meter dash before we re-ran the 60-meter hurdles. I ran the in the finals of the 60-meter dash and finished in fourth place, and then they re-ran the finals of the 60-meter hurdles. I must have been mad as a result of the dagger looks people were giving me over my slipped block because I not only broke my own meet record, it was also the second fastest 60-meter hurdle time in the whole country! I was so hyped after that race. That is hands down my best track and field memory from my time at Notre Dame. The best part was that no one could say anything to me because I re-ran the finals of the 60-meter hurdles after running the finals of the 60-meter dash and I still came out on top.”

Professional Career

“Upon graduation it was time for me to figure out what I was going to do in life. I wanted to continue running. I also wanted to continue my education and get my master’s degree. So I headed to Arizona State University to work on my Master’s in Instructional Design, and I trained with a running coach out there. I did not know what was going to happen with my running. The coach I met out in Arizona had coached for West Virginia University, and she was Nigerian just like me. She was trying to recruit another girl on my team, who was also Nigerian, to run for the Nigerian national team. Once I found this out I told my teammate to tell the coach that I was interested, too. ‘I have a Muslim name, so you probably didn’t know I was Nigerian.’ And yes, she was surprised. So the next year I was at ASU, working on my thesis, and training. In January, I had only run one indoor meet when I got a call saying that they were going to fly me to Nigeria in two weeks for the trials with the goal being to compete in the Commonwealth Games, which were going to be in Melbourne, Australia in April. Get ready for it! All I could think was, ‘Oh shoot!’ Yes, that is how my professional running career began. There was no planning; it was an operation of faith.”

“I finished my master’s degree in 2008, and was training the whole time I was in school. I was gearing up for the Olympics in Beijing, (running the 110-meter high hurdles), where I was a semifinalist. I was hurt that whole year leading up to Beijing. I had a stress fracture, and was getting my butt whooped from taking time off to deal with the fracture. It was not until the last couple of meets in Europe when something clicked with me and I was able to apply it to my running. Thankfully, I ran really well in the prelims. So well that I set a personal record.”

“Once I had completed my masters, I had a friend who was training in Florida and was making great strides in terms of her improvements, and so she connected me with her coach. I then moved to Orlando to continue my training there with him. It was interesting, and I learned a lot from his coaching. It was under his instruction that I ran in the London Olympics. Now, I am still here in Florida … as it is where I met my future wife. She was in a training group that worked on the other side of the track!”

Olympics Day 12 - Athletics
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 08: Andrew Turner of Great Britain and Selim Nurudeen of Nigeria compete in the Men’s 110m Hurdles Semifinal on Day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on August 8, 2012 in London, England.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

“Running in the Olympics was a really fun experience, but I went into the Olympics like a man on a mission. I ran a personal record in the prelims of both of the Olympics in which I competed. I did not have time to be dazzled. I had work to do. Running at Nationals in college and running in the Olympics seemed the same to me. Yes, one stadium was bigger, but the pressure was the same for me. The one thing that was different at the Olympics was the Olympic Village; that was amazing. It is its own living space. Everything thing you could possibly need is there. It was the perfect environment for you to compete at your athletic peak. Being at the opening ceremonies was a fantastic experience as well. Beijing was so incredible; I just cannot put it into words. Getting to meet athletes from different countries, and NBA players. Getting to go the Great Wall when I was finished competing. The whole experience was priceless. I was really able to enjoy myself once my race was done. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.”

Life After Sports

“While I was getting my master’s degree, I also got into graphic design, because I had those skills from my undergraduate degree. This allowed me to do some freelance work and make some money while I trained for the Olympics. I made my roommate a flyer (he was a trainer at a gym), and then all of his coworkers starting coming to me because they needed flyers. Then I started branching out and made some logos, and brochures, and then people asked me if I made websites. What did I do? I taught myself how to code and then I started making websites, and it just ballooned from there. The work-life balance I learned at Notre Dame helped me to balance my training and my freelance work. It was great because I did not have to look for a job. I could just come home after training and work. I set my own hours, I had a steady flow of work, and I got to work from home. I didn’t do a lot of marketing to promote my work, either; it all came through word of mouth.”

“Today I have my own company which does graphic and web design … that very same company that I started while I was training. I am publishing a graphic novel that I have been working on for a while. I was able to turn my artistic background into a career I love. From the design competition I was in at Notre Dame I was able to patent the product I created. Someday I need to figure out how to move that forward. Having the opportunity to create something that can potentially affect the world was an incredible experience. What did I create you ask? A broom/vacuum device which is as effective as a broom but changes the dustpan step to make it more efficient in the dirt/dust remove process. During the development process, I got to work with an engineer to execute the technical part of it. If only I could tell the me back then what I know now! I also know why so many great products never see the light of day. It is more than just designing and developing a product, there is a whole another level: marketing, getting it built, putting it in front of the right people. It is a whole process. I definitely did not get it then, but the process was invaluable to me.”

I asked Selim if he could share some words of advice for young student-athletes, and here is the wisdom he shared.

“My advice would be to enjoy it, as it goes very fast, but to also learn the lessons along the way. The lessons you learn in sports will influence you for the rest of your life, and will continue to appear as you live your life. In addition, it is not just the lessons you will learn in sports, but how you handle yourself during those life experiences, that you will be able to fall back and use later on as you journey through your life. Learn the lessons from the sport you are in, and grow from those experiences. You will be able to use them in all aspects of your life. Do not always take life so seriously. All of those seemingly difficult things, they are just a footnote in your life. I was at Notre Dame for four years. When I look back at the last four years of my life and how quickly they went by, that is exactly the same amount of time that I spent at Notre Dame. Enjoy every moment of your sports career, because they go by so fast. Something bad might happen and you might think it is literally the end of the world, but in reality, it is just a small blip in the story of your life. Enjoy it, don’t take it so seriously, and make the best of each moment.”

I just cannot end an interview without asking for a funny story …

“Well, we played in Notre Dame’s Bookstore Basketball tournament one year even though we were not supposed to have a team at all. We had a ‘secret team.’ Most of us had played basketball in high school, and so we were not too bad. We made it to the Sweet 16 two years in a row (my sophomore and junior years), but we were not able to play because we had relays at the same time. My junior year, when we got to the Sweet 16 (our team name that year was ‘The Bad Guys From Space Jam’), someone called our coach and said, ‘I do not think it is fair that there is a bookstore basketball team with track guys on it.’ (Oops.) We went to practice that day and our coach says, ‘will The Bad Guys from Space Jam please stand up.’ He then proceeded to tell us that if we wanted to run at relays we needed to drop out of the tournament. There were so many creative teams playing in the bookstore basketball tournament. It was so fun to watch, even if we could not participate. There was a team called Condiments, and each guy was covered in his respective condiment (mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise). No one wanted to play them because they were so gross!” (laughs)

Selim and his wife currently live in Orlando, Florida, and have a six-month-old little girl. All of the siblings in his family were athletes. His two sisters went to Texas A&M and both ran track, and his brother went to Baylor where he played football. “Sports taught us all that you are not the top dog, and most of the time you won’t be the top dog, so you better have a humble spirit and the determination to keep working toward the next level. These lessons are easy to translate into your professional career and the rest of your life!”

Cheers & GO IRISH!