The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

SoCal's John Nunn race walks all the way to the Olympics

by Josie Huang | The Madeleine Brand Show

John Nunn holding a Good Luck Card made by his daughter, Ella, and her class. Ashley Myers-Turner/KPCC

This is the third in KPCC’s series “L.A. To London,” which will be exploring local connections to the 2012 Summer Olympics. View Part 1, Part 2, and follow the series on Twitter at #latolondon.

Race walking – does any other sport get razzed on more? (Ok, aside from curling?)

Comedy bits make fun of the off-kilter style of race walkers. Their legs spin, the hips swivel the arms pump vigorously.

Racewalker John Nunn is headed to his second Olympics this summer. And he's heard it all.

"Of course, they think it looks funny," Nunn says of detractors. "And that's when we say, well, just try it. Come out with us. Give us one mile."

If you dare. At 6’2”, Nunn's got long legs with super-strong hamstrings and shin muscles.

"If it comes to walking there's no question, I'm going to absolutely destroy you," Nunn says.

Nunn, who's 34 and lives in Bonsall, a small community in northern San Diego County, is the only American competitor in the 50-kilometer race walk in London.

That's 31 miles, five miles longer than a marathon, and, Nunn says, much more grueling because even though you're moving at half the speed, you're out on the track for twice the amount of time.

"Your body moves through these massive waves of pain, and your arm feels like it's going to fall off," Nunn says. "Your leg hurts, then your groin hurts, you literally feel like you're going to die."

Yet Nunn’s devoted his entire adult life to race walking. He even joined a special Army program that supports his training full-time in exchange for his part-time service as a staff sergeant.

As a child growing up in a Mormon family in Colorado, Nunn participated in some race walking events at the urging of his parents.

But race walking carried the stigma of being for people who weren’t good at anything else.

"You’ll see the coaches take that same kind of mentality," Nunn says. " Well, look, you’re kind of fat, there’s really nothing we can put you in, so just go do the walks. And they go do the walks, and of course they’re horrible at it.“

Nunn was good enough to run long-distance in high school in Indiana. But when it came time to secure a sports scholarship, his 4:34 mile didn’t cut it.

His father suggested he apply for a race walking scholarship at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, a Division II school. Nunn balked.

”And then I didn’t get any offers for running," Nunn says. "And I met some of the guys (on the race walking team) and they seemed really level-headed and cool, like guys you would meet at a club or at a party.”

He cut college short to go on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Las Vegas. Afterward, he got married, had his daughter Ella, got divorced.

Through it all, he continued race walking. He moved to the San Diego area in his early 20s to train with international race walking coach, Enrique Pena, who is based in Chula Vista.

Pena and Nunn work out at nearby Lake Miramar, a popular spot for barbeques and boating. They meet several times a week so Nunn can train over a 5-mile paved loop.

Pena is pleased with Nunn's technique but tells him to "relax your face and neck and shoulders and everything."

Pena went with Nunn to the 2004 Olympics in Athens, but they missed the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when Nunn was dealing with his divorce and becoming a single dad.

Pena says Nunn’s got the head and the heart to do well in the Olympics. But international competition is going to be extremely stiff.

"The 50 KM walkers around the world, the strongest come from Russia, China, France, Italy, Spain, and a couple Mexicans," Pena says.

Apparently, the rest of the world has been taking race walking seriously since it became an Olympic sport in the early 1900s.

A tough field is not Nunn's only challenge. The pain he experiences during races often follows him off the track. Back and leg injuries are common in race walking. Before he takes off for London, Nunn meets with his sports medicine doctor Joseph Moore, and receives an injection of an anti-inflammatory steroid in his leg.

So much agony for so little glory. Nunn knows race walking is a hard sell to the talented young athletes who could go into any sport. The pitch would go like this:

"No one will really know your name or really care and you'll be made fun for most of your career," he says.

But Nunn wants people to know it’s worth it. And he's glad race walking is getting its highest-profile showcase to date.

He and other athletes in the 50KM Olympics race walk will lap Buckingham Palace 25 times. That's enough to impress even the Queen.

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