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'Human alarm' sets eyes on Pre Classic, Olympics
EUGENE — At 24 years of age, Nijel Amos is hardly a has-been.
The Botswana native was the world's No. 1-ranked runner in the 800 meters last year, winning his third International Association of Athletics Federation Diamond League trophy, primarily for a strong body of work on the 2017 European tour.
But when you set a World Junior record and chase David Rudisha to a world record, earning a silver medal at the 2012 Olympic Games in London in 1 minute, 41.73 seconds at age 18, the standard you're setting is Eiffel Tower high.
That's how it comes to be that Amos' coach with Oregon Track Club Elite, Mark Rowland, speaks of the runner as a reclamation project.
"Before I came over to the U.S., I had to go and fix (runners) who had been broken mentally or physically, to make them better and give them hope and get them back to their level, Some you do, some you don't," says Rowland, 55, a British native who won a bronze medal in the steeplechase at the 1988 Olympics.
"There's a little bit of that with Nigel. All of a sudden (in 2012), he becomes the world record-holder at the junior level. Now he has to try to transfer it to becoming familar with being the best in the world, or at least be challenging for it."
Amos — the headliner in the 800 at the Prefontaine Classic on Saturday at Hayward Field (the two-day meet begins Friday) — hasn't languished since then, but there have been some struggles. After an injury-plagued 2013, he was solid in 2014 but struggled some in 2015, failing to make the finals at the World Championships. In 2016, Amos was unable to get out of his qualifying heat at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
It was time for a major change for Amos, who had met Rowland at the 2016 Pre Classic and then convened with him at the Olympic Games that year, cementing what would become a coach/runner relationship.
"I wasn't doing all the things I need to keep where I wanted to be," Amos says. "I knew I could do it. When I met Coach Mark, I thought, 'Maybe I can do something big if I work with him for four years. Maybe it's time for me to move to another level, far from everything, and be in a new group and see how it goes.' That's when I said, 'I'm moving to Oregon.' "
Amos stayed in Botswana through the winter of 2017, with Rowland, ironically, in Kenya.
"I was writing his workouts from afar, so we weren't going completely cold," Rowland says. After Amos finally arrived in Eugene in May, "we hit the ground running with the European circuit and Diamond League."
Amos had good results, winning five Diamond League races, including an 800 in London in which he clocked 1:43.18, second-best in the world last year and his best time in two years. He finished fifth in 1:45.83, fading down the stretch, at the World Championships in London.
"I was feeling good again," Amos says. "I kept winning and running 1:43s and gaining confidence. I was very pleased with my season. I got back to the level I needed to be, and Coach Mark and I were not together that long. I look forward to seeing how much more we can do with more time together."
Amos was born to a large family on a farm in a small Botswana village called Marobela.
"I'm a countryside boy," he says. "I never knew my father. My mom passed away when I was young. I was raised by my grandparents and a great-grandmother, but especially by my grandmother after my grandfather passed. She had nine children herself and raised nine grandchildren."
Amos says he didn't realize his grandmother wasn't his mother until he was 15.
"That's where I get my strength and my faith," he says. "Every day, you would see her smiling and praying, even after all she went through."
As a youth, Amos was a soccer player. He didn't start running until age 15 in 2009.
"I had a cousin who was running 100 meters," he says. "One day we had a bet on a race. He beat me, but I found I did well in the longer races like the 3,000."
Amos' coach at McConnell Community College in Botswana told him, "You have strength in your running, but you have speed, too. I believe you can do the 800."
"It took me a couple of years to make the transition," Amos says.
Then, in one dizzying summer in 2012, he set a national record of 1:43.11, won the World Junior title and earned silver at London, with a time that is tied with Sebastian Coe for the third-fastest in history.
"I look back and think, 'Wow, it happened so fast,'" Amos says. "Earlier that season, my mind was like, 'I just want to get to the Olympics and see all these guys on TV.' After I qualified, it was like, 'Now I'm an Olympian, too.' I didn't care if I medaled. My goal was to make the finals. I'm just the young kid representing my country.
"Once I got to the final, I know I'm going to go hard. David went hard, and I followed him. I stayed behind him and was patient. I made my move the last 250 and kept it. To come away with the medal, the only medal in my country's history, it was hard to believe."
There haven't been as many high points since 2012, though there was a big one in 2014, when he beat Rudisha in an epic Pre Classic battle in 1:43.63, a time that still stands as a meet record.
"It was the first time I'd raced with him and all the other top guys," Amos recalls. "It was kind of like the Olympics. Get in there, and just be patient. It's good to know I won at a place that I now call my home ground."
Moved to U.S. at 16
Amos has lived in Eugene for about a year. He shares a home near Hendricks Park, a short jog from Hayward Field, with four other OTC Elite runners — Harun Abda, Hassan Mead, Tom Farrell and Hanna Green.
"I've never been to a place with so much forest, so many trees," Amos says. "It's lovely. The people are lovely, too. They wave at you. It makes you feel like it's home."
Amos' primary training partner is Abda, 28, who moved to the states at 16 from Ethiopia. He competed collegiately at Minnesota and moved to Eugene in 2014. Abda, a naturalized U.S. citizen, placed seventh in the 800 at the 2016 Olympic trials.
"To train with a guy who has run 1:41 is awesome," says Abda, whose best is 1:45.55. "It motivates you. If I can keep up with him in a workout, maybe I will be able to run that fast, too."
Abda says Amos' housemates call him "The Human Alarm."
"Every morning, it's quiet before we get up and get on with the day," Abda says. "Nijel comes out of his room just busting. He is always loud, always in a good mood. He puts a smile on everybody's face."
Amos opened his outdoor season with a 45.94 400 victory in the San Diego Aztec Invitational on March 24. He followed that with an impressive 1:44.65 800 win at the Stanford Invitational on March 31. The next meet was the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in New Zealand, where he breezed to a 1:45.12 triumph in his heat, but then suffered a calf injury and limped home in 1:48.45 in the final on April 12.
"He never properly rehabilitated last year," Rowland says. "We have to make sure he effectively rehabs now."
The injury sidelined Amos for three weeks. He began training again in early May and said he expects to be healthy for the Pre Classic, which will be his next race.
"I have a good base, good work behind me," Amos says. "I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with my season. We hope 'Pre' will be my first meet back. It would be good for me to run for the first time in front of my home community.
"The main thing will be to get through the race healthy, but I would love to win. I don't want to push myself so hard that I get hurt again, but I want to say I did it in front of this community that gave me comfort, that gave me confidence to do well and become myself again."
An eye on Olympics
Amos and Rowland are on a four-year plan that begins this year and goes through the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and the 2021 World Championships in Eugene.
"I already have ideas of what Nijel can do," Rowland says. "I'm still finding out what's going to work and what's not. He wants to be the best in the world. It's a different type of mind-set for people when they become one of the best. Getting there is OK. Staying there and continuing to be there and to be the best is different.
"Nijel was one of the best last year and ran 1:43, but we need to try to consistently run 1:42s again. Then it will be about executing and performing in a championship, which is what I'm about. We understand we're going to take a few knocks along the way, but we're looking at the 2020 Olympics and the 2021 Worlds."
For the first time, the 5-10 Amos has spent time in the gym, putting 10 pounds on his now 140-pound frame.
"I'm stronger, which is good," he says. "I'm doing all these things that I never cared about before, like diet and sleep. Before, I'd do whatever I wanted to do. Now I have the mind to pay attention and respect those things. They'll all help me to get what I want to accomplish.
"And so will Mark. He is a championship coach. He gives me that confidence. We work together to create my program. We're creating something special for me."
Medals at London and Eugene are important. So, too, is a run at Rudisha's world record of 1:40.91. One morning last winter, Eugene got a rare snowfall.
"Nijel had never seen snow before," Abda says. "He was super excited, running around. The next thing I know, he's outside writing '1:39' into the snow."
Amos laughs at the thought, then draws quiet for a second.
"I believe I can be the world record-holder, definitely," he says. "I keep on putting that in my imagination, that one day I will walk away with it and get it right. Eventually, I'll get it. I don't see why I can't get it if I'm healthy and training well. I have the ability, but I have to make it happen."
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