Alumni Outlook Magazine



National champion Tim Nelson races into Blue Devil history after taking a disciplined approach to his running, academics

During the 2010 outdoor track and field season, UW-Stout runner Tim Nelson learned the hard way the meaning of the old phrase "sophomore slump."

He didn't qualify for the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championships and contemplated not just quitting his running career but leaving UW-Stout.

"That track season was really bad," Nelson said. "I ran slower in all of my events (from my freshman year). I was easily rattled. I was not tough. I was mentally weak. If I hurt, I would feel like quitting. It was easy to throw in the towel. I actually thought about leaving Stout."

His struggles even surprised his coach. "Tim was having phenomenal workouts and we thought he was ready to go," said UW-Stout cross country and distance coach Matt Schauf. "We thought it was going to happen, and it never did. In his head everything that seemed easy for him the year before was hard now."

Nelson then began having second thoughts about his second thoughts.

"I remember thinking if I left it would be the easy way out," Nelson said. "It would have been easy to quit, but I knew it was not the right thing to do. It wouldn't be fair to my teammates or to my coaches. I made the decision to stick it out here, do my best and see how it goes."

It's gone pretty well ever since for the business administration major, who grew up about 20 miles southeast of Eau Claire in Augusta. He has gone on to become one of the most celebrated athletes in UW-Stout history, recording three national track titles last spring with a fall of cross country eligibility remaining.

Since that sophomore slump, Nelson has:

  • Won three NCAA Division III titles, the 2012 5,000-meter indoor and the 2012 5,000- and 10,000-meter outdoor
  • Posted the third best-ever Division III outdoor 5,000-meter time (13:57.02)
  • Been named 2012 Division III Outdoor Track Athlete of the Year
  • Been named 2012 Capital One Academic All-America of the Year for cross country-track
  • Won the 2011 WIAC cross country championship and named WIAC runner of the year
  • Placed fourth at the 2011 Division III cross country championships
  • Won the 2012 WIAC indoor 3,000-meter title, WIAC outdoor 5,000- and 10,000-meter titles
  • Earned the 2012 WIAC outdoor track Max Sparger Scholar-Athlete Award
  • Set school records for the 3,000- and 5,000-meter indoors and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter outdoors
  • Earned six All-America Awards (one cross country, one indoor track, four outdoor track) and three individual national championships
  • Led UW-Stout as a team to its highest-ever national finish indoors (fourth) and outdoors (third), both this year
  • Twice qualified for the Division III cross country championships

 What changed from his sophomore season and how did he take his running and academic careers to new heights?

A late bloomer

Nelson almost did not come to UW-Stout. A professed "lousy football player" while growing up in a football town, Nelson was "wanting to be good at something athletically."

He noticed in physical education classes at Augusta that he seemed to have a knack for coming out on top in distance runs, so he went out for the track team. Augusta High School had no cross country team, so Nelson, with the assistance of then-assistant track coach Will Jacobs, ran independently in high school cross country meets and did well. Because Augusta had no official cross country team, Nelson was not eligible to qualify for the state meet.

After his final cross country season, Nelson continued to train through the winter in preparation for the track season. He took fourth in the two-mile run in WIAA Division 3 at the state meet in La Crosse.

Nelson began to attract a little attention from Wisconsin colleges and universities, but not much more than standard recruitment letters. "I had decided that I was going to go to UW-Oshkosh," Nelson said.

Schauf was urged by a friend to meet Nelson. The friend coaches in the same high school conference as Nelson's high school. Schauf and Nelson met at a road race in Eau Claire between Nelson's junior and senior years in high school, and Schauf took down Nelson's phone number.

"When I first met coach Schauf, I wasn't very good," Nelson said. "We ran in a road race and he beat me."

"Tim gave me his number and after that race I tossed it," Schauf said.

But Nelson was destined to become a Blue Devil. Early in the next school year, Nelson ran a solid race on the Boyceville High School cross country course. Before coming to UW-Stout, Schauf had been the high school coach at Boyceville for a number of years and was very familiar with the course.

"He ran in the low 17 minutes and that is not bad on the Boyceville course," Schauf said, who then called up his friend who had tipped him off about Nelson and asked for Nelson's phone number. "I got hold of him the next day," Schauf said.

"I was set on Oshkosh, but coach Schauf persisted," Nelson said. "I went on the standard Stout university tour and really liked the school. I knew that I needed to come back for the recruitment tour. I ran with the team and, after that, I really wanted to come here." "The only reason Tim came to visit was out of courtesy and respect for me," Schauf said. "He was set on going somewhere else."

Making Blue Devil history

The rest, as they say, is history for the business administration major.

Nelson's collegiate career didn't start off as well as he would have liked. His body did not respond well to the higher demands put on a collegiate athlete.

"I couldn't handle the training," Nelson said. "I had so few miles and training under my belt. Coach Schauf had to take me through these baby steps. I had to crawl before I could walk." He was crawling during his difficult sophomore season. Nelson said he had self-doubts and didn't believe in himself after that season. But he found a number of people who did – Schauf, assistant coach Mary Palmer and teammate Peter Johnston.

"When I didn't believe in myself, they did," Nelson said. "They were the catalyst. During the summer, Peter and I ran every day and we became good friends. Peter made running fun again."

"Personal pride, discipline, determination, a high threshold for pain, and teamwork are just a few of the intangibles that Tim provides that you just can't teach in the classroom." – Brian Stout, UW-Stout ROTC director

"Peter was a big part of turning Tim around," Schauf said. "What Peter was doing rubbed off on Tim."

Cross country in the fall of 2010 was fun again for Nelson – and successful. Johnston was the Blue Devils' No. 1 runner and Nelson No. 2. Johnston finished fourth at the WIAC championships and Nelson was eighth, earning his first all-conference recognition.

In the NCAA Midwest regional, Johnston was 13th and Nelson 17th; both qualified for the NCAA Division III championships at Wartburg College, the first time two UW-Stout men had qualified for cross country nationals in the same year since the 1970s. Johnston earned All-America with 22nd while Nelson was 45th.

Nelson was bit by national tournament fever. "The atmosphere at those races is better than anywhere else," Nelson said. "Once you go to one (national championship event), you want to go again. You're hooked."

Nelson knew he wanted to get back to a national event and he knew he wanted to stand on the medals stand. "After that cross country season, I wanted to be an All-American," Nelson said.

That winter he broke the school indoor record in the 5,000-meter in 14 minutes, 43 seconds. He didn't qualify for nationals but it was a turning point. "After that race, Tim saw that he could run with the top guys," Schauf said.

"That indoor season was my coming out party," Nelson said. "I had a good indoor season and my outdoor season just took off."

Nelson would qualify for the 2011 national outdoor championships when he hit an automatic qualifying time and a school record in 10,000-meter in 30:06.66. Nelson also qualified in the 5,000-meter run.

Nelson wasn't overly pleased with his 10,000-meter run at nationals. "I didn't run a particularly good race," Nelson said. "I was contending for third but fell apart for eighth place."

It was good enough to earn him his first All-America medal. Two days later, Nelson collected his second medal of the meet when he placed fifth in the 5,000-meter, a race he termed much better.

Growing as a person

Nelson said success on the track was a result of changes he made off the track. "I took care of myself," Nelson said. "I had no distractions in my life. I cut them out. My training was really consistent."

Schauf agreed. "He was doing all of the little things and he started making that a priority," Schauf said. "Being successful in college had become very important to Tim.

Some of "those little things" include getting enough sleep, proper hydration and fueling, keeping up with the condition of his running shoes and keeping his social life in check.

Things were going well for Nelson both in his distance running and in the classroom. After not really caring for his choice of business administration early in his collegiate career, he started to discover classes that challenged him and that he enjoyed.

"I really started enjoying my finance and accounting classes," Nelson said. "And I have been pleased with my internship experiences."

Nelson spent two summers as an intern with Northwestern Insurance in Eau Claire.

He also joined the ROTC program at UW-Stout. "I knew people in the Army and always respected people who have served in the military," Nelson said. "I thought, even if I don't like it, there is no way this won't be a good experience."

With weekly classes and labs, Nelson has found the ROTC program to his liking and plans to be an officer in the finance corps in either active duty, Reserves or in the National Guard.

"As future leaders in the Army, ROTC cadets generally need to be more fit than the soldiers that they will eventually lead," said Brian Stout, a UW-Stout professor of military science for the Northwoods Battalion that consists of UW-Stout, UW-Eau Claire, and UW-River Falls. "Collegiate athletes such as Tim make outstanding officers because many of the lessons they learn through athletics translate directly to successful Army leadership." 

Along with a new attitude toward running, school and his ROTC commitment, Nelson's training program during summer 2011 prepared him for what would prove to be a phenomenal 2011-12. Nelson spent a great deal of time training along with fellow seniors Justus Bibeau and Clint Loker.

"They helped me a lot and I think I helped them a lot," Nelson said.

A dominating season

Nelson began to dominate during the 2011 cross country season. Three times he was selected as the WIAC runner of the week. Nelson opened the season by breaking the school record with a second place at the Sundodger Invitational hosted by the University of Washington.

He rolled off first-place finishes at the UW-Eau Claire Blugold Invitational and the Brooks Invitational — the site of the upcoming NCAA Division III championships — and literally ran away with the WIAC title by more than 14 seconds. He placed fourth at the NCAA championships to become the fourth male Blue Devil to earn cross country All-America honors.

The 2012 track and field season only got better for Nelson. After winning the WIAC 3,000-meter in conference record-breaking time, Nelson went on to win his first national title, the 5,000-meter in a school record of 14:11.80 at Grinnell College.

Schauf began looking for events to showcase Nelson's talents for the outdoor season. Traveling to North Central College in Naperville, Ill., on March 31, Nelson ran what would prove to be the third best time of the season nationally in winning the 10,000-meter in 29:35.78.

Three weeks later it was off to the West Coast to participate in the Mt. SAC relays in Walnut, Calif.  Nelson finished sixth in the 5,000-meter in a race consisting mostly of NCAA Division I and II runners. Finishing in 13:57.02, Nelson become the fifth Division III runner ever to break the 14-minute barrier and his time is the third fastest in Division III history.

At the 2012 WIAC outdoor track and field championships at UW-Whitewater the first weekend of May, Nelson won the 5,000 and 10,000 and earned the WIAC Max Sparger Scholar-Athlete Award. The late Sparger was a UW-Stout coach and conference commissioner. Two weeks later Nelson was named Midwest Track Athlete of the Year.

He entered the national meet seeded No. 1 in the 5,000 and No. 3 in the 10,000. It was May 24-26 at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps College in Claremont, Calif.

In the 10,000, on the first day of the meet, Nelson went out strong but was passed by top-seeded Michael Schmidt of Middlebury College at about the 25-minute mark.

"When he passed me, I knew I had to go with him," Nelson said. "So I went with him and I knew that when it was time to go, I would really have to go. I went real hard the last two laps to let him know that he wasn't going to pass me.

"It surprised me though. I didn't think that in the national meet I would look over my shoulder and not see anyone."

Nelson was more pleased with his efforts in the 5,000. "Haverford (Jordan Schilit) took it out hard and I got trapped behind," Nelson said. "I sat in fourth and with five laps left I knew I had to pass. But I told myself I was too tired. With three laps left, I knew I had to go. I knew I would have one chance to go for the win and make it count."

Nelson finished in 14:15.31, five seconds ahead of Schilit. The win also cemented UW-Stout's third place team finish, the best finish in UW-Stout history. The Blue Devils also picked up significant points in the decathlon with a second place by freshman Brandon Zarnoth and a fourth by sophomore Zach Anderson.

"I think (UW-Stout's finish) goes to show that you don't need to go to a big, flashy college to be successful and to make an impact," Nelson said. "Hopefully, we passed on a blueprint for the underclassmen to repeat it and surpass it."

The two national titles by Nelson were enough to earn him NCAA Division III Track Athlete of the Year. Combined with his 3.64 grade-point average and community service projects, Nelson was also named CoSIDA/Capital One Academic All-America of the Year, the second in school history. Julia Hirssig won the award in 2010 for women's basketball.

The individual awards are great, Nelson said, but he cherishes the team awards. He keeps the team awards with him but has sent the individual medals to his parents' home in Augusta.

"The accolades are great," Nelson said, "but I feel like I am just doing my job, just doing the job any athlete should be doing."

Nelson has used up his track eligibility, but has one year of cross country eligibility remaining. After last year's successes, Nelson knows he is a marked man. "I know there is a big target on me," Nelson said. "I don't have to win the national title, but I want to."

Nelson will continue to train and work with his teammates this summer and throughout the upcoming season. "I look forward to working with the guys to show them the blueprint to success," Nelson said.