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The Spark That Never Goes Out

Before Nicholas Sparks was penning smash romance novels like The Notebook and Message in a Bottle, he was smashing his high school rivals in the 800m. The literary colossus tells SPIKES why track will always be the sport for him.

In his sophomore year at Bella Vista High School in Fair Oaks, California, Nicholas Sparks cut his 800m best from 2:06 to 1:53. Those 13 seconds took him from handy teammate to genuine prospect.

“I suppose that was when I knew there was a chance that I might eventually be able to receive a scholarship,” Sparks tells SPIKES.

Born in Nebraska in 1965, Sparks, whose family settled in California when he was eight, has sold more than 77 million books worldwide. He is unsure of where his running gifts came from, but believes his “above average aerobic capacity” as well as his “above average fast-twitch fibres” formed the perfect fit for the 800m.

Throughout his time at Bella Vista – which was also attended by 2008 Olympic men’s pole vault fourth placer Derek Miles – Sparks ran 1:52 “four or five times”. The first time he achieved the feat, the performance was good enough to rank him third best high schooler in the country.

 

“Back then, there was no internet, the only source for those kinds of rankings was Track and Field News,” he recalls. “With that said, the USA Today published the rankings, and it was the first time I saw my name in a national paper.”

He was a quality athlete. During his sophomore year Sparks also featured in the distance medley team which was ranked number one in the US (he ran the 1200m, recording a split of 3:04). Later in his senior year he finished fourth in the California State meet and fifth at the Golden West Invitational.

He was not short of scholarship offers. Georgetown, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas and Notre Dame came knocking. Dartmouth and Princeton were also interested, but in 1984 he plumped to attend the University of Notre Dame in Indiana.

“In the end, Notre Dame seemed to be the best fit for me,” says Sparks. “It was smaller, private, free, and the team was particularly strong in the middle distance events. Added to that, the academic reputation was fantastic. I was the valedictorian at my high school, and education had always been important to me.”

Educationally his college years were a success – he graduated in finance in 1988. But his dreams of emulating his athletics heroes – British duo Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, Cuban 400m/800m great Alberto Juantorena and former US mile record holder Steve Scott – were to wither through an Achilles tendon injury.

He missed two full outdoor and indoor seasons. Halfway through his senior year he quit athletics: his body would simply not hold up. Still, there were a number of highlights. He placed high at the IC4A championships and ran a 1:50 split in the 4x800m at Drake Relays as a freshman, helping his team to a school record 7:20:11 that still stands.

These days he is philosophical when reflecting on his competitive career.

“I never had that next gear that separates the good from great,” he admits. “I was a good collegiate athlete, but there was never a shot at the national or international level.

“Years ago there were regrets, but more than I feel now. I suppose maturity has brought with it the idea that I can look back and know that I did the best I could.”

Yet his years at Notre Dame were not the end of his athletics story. In 1990 he co-wrote Wokini with 1984 Olympic 10,000m champion Billy Mills. But it was in the 2000s when his eldest, Miles, began competing that he was truly reunited with the sport: Sparks stepped up as coach. He picked up a few more athletes and when the oldest entered high school, he started volunteering at New High Bern High School in North Carolina. He even donated $900,000 towards a track to a school where many of the runners come from low-income families.

The team he helped coach won seven national championships in relays, broke three national records and in 2009 snatched a world junior indoor 4x400m record of 3:13.06. Sparks quit his volunteer coach role after Miles graduated from high school, but he looks back fondly on his time in New Bern fray.

“In retrospect, it was fantastic; at the time, it was up and down,” he explains. “It took a lot of time and there was a lot of travel. Many of the athletes struggled with academics [despite Sparks providing the tutoring], and so I was never quite sure which athletes would be eligible. I walked away thinking that while I was glad that I'd done it, there's no desire to continue.”

Sparks still retains a passion for the sport. He’s enjoyed watching the resurgence in US endurance running and still jogs on the treadmill – “easier on the joints,” he says.

Would he ever write a novel on athletics? “If I wrote anything at all, I’d write a non-fiction account of the 2009 season,” he says.

A high school team breaking a world record – SPIKES would be first in line for that one.