Billy Nelson realized a lifelong dream by qualifying for the 2008 Olympics, but his big-picture dreaming always has had a Part B. Four years later, he's also realized that one as he prepares to compete for a spot on Team USA in the London Olympics.
A six-time All-American runner during his Colorado career (2002-08), Nelson was hired by his alma mater two years ago as an assistant track coach/recruiting coordinator.
"It's great . . . it's something I've always wanted to do," Nelson said. "I didn't think it would be while I was running on my own, but I love it. The stuff I do is the stuff I liked to do while I was in school . . . I liked hosting recruits when I was in school. Now, I'm able to recruit high schoolers, get to know them and talk to them about our program."
A bonus is being able to participate in training strategy sessions with head CU track/cross country coach Mark Wetmore and associate head coach Heather Burroughs. "It's nice to sit in on meetings and hear why we do certain things and learn a little more," Nelson said. "I get to reflect on that, and that helps me understand (his workouts) a little more."
Nelson, who won the 2011 USA steeplechase crown, finished 11th in the second preliminary race in that event in the 2008 Games. He has a top time of 8:21:42 this season, which is below the Olympic 'A' standard of 8:23.10 and the 'B' standard of 8:32.00. This year's top time is a 7:54.31 posted by Kenya's Paul Kipsiele Koech. The world record of 7:53.63 was set in 2004 by Kenya's Stephen Cherono (now Saif Saaeed Shaheen of Qatar).
Nelson typically has his personal workout done before he reports for his daily CU duties, but he occasionally works out with the Buffs' current crop of steeplechasers. His most recent race was on May 31 in Rome, where he finished ninth overall in a prestigious Diamond League field with his time of 8:21.42.
"It was my second-fastest time ever . . . very similar to what I ran in the Trials in 2008," he said. "I was happy with it, I felt comfortable in the splits, and with all the travel it was nice to have a good race. It was definitely good motivation going into the Trials."
As a competitor at CU, Nelson persevered and successfully battled through injuries and won the Big 12 Conference steeplechase crown in 2008. He also was the NCAA runner-up that year. "That was an injury-free year for me and I felt strong going into the Trials that year," he said. "I've been injury-free for four years now and there are no signs of anything now. I'm definitely healthy and strong going in."
He's scheduled to run in the qualifying heat of the 2012 Trials in Eugene, Ore., on Monday. Also competing for positions on the U.S. team is CU assistant track coach Casey Malone (discus) and current Buffs student-athletes Emma Coburn and Shalaya Kipp (steeplechase) and Joe Morris (100-, 200-meters). Aric Van Halen (steeplechase) is a possible entry in his event.
CU also has a handful of former athletes competing, including 2008 Olympian Jenny (Barringer) Simpson, the current world champion in the 1,500 meters. Also, marathoner Kara Goucher placed third in the U.S. Women's Marathon Olympic Trials and has already qualified for Team USA.
Nelson said his performance in Rome boosted his confidence in several areas: "It helped me trust in my fitness and my workouts. It's a tough year; it's probably a little more stacked than 2008. But I'm in a bit of a better position going in than I was then. I think I have a good shot at making the team. I'm definitely mentally and physically strong going in."
Nelson's inclusion on the '08 U.S. team didn't take him by surprise, but it was ahead of schedule. He believed that making the team this summer and achieving what he called the "ultimate goal" was a more realistic long-term goal. That it happened earlier than expected was fine by him.
Competing for the U.S., he said, "means everything. It was the ultimate goal when I started running. Even when I was in the eighth grade, you're thinking about the Olympics. We had the junior Olympics, but the actual Olympics, that's what you're thinking about. Achieving that is a dream come true, something that I had planned on trying to accomplish in 2012.
"But 2008 was four years early and I just kind of went with it. There's some unfinished business that I have; I didn't make the final in 2008 and I hope to make the team and make the final this year. But to me it's everything. It's what you try to strive for as a runner."
Nelson, now sponsored by New Balance, will turn 28 in September. If all goes well, he believes he also can be a candidate for the 2016 Summer Games. "People are running in their mid-30s still and running well," he said. "I think the key to it is staying healthy. Obviously, there's that peak time and (afterward) the times start getting slower, but I think if you're smart with your training you can run the event just as long as you can any other event.
"You do lose a little speed, but there are 10k and 5k runners now that are in their late 30s and they still have the speed that you would need for a steeplechase as well. I think if you're smart with your training you can go into your late 30s.
"Honestly, if I can go four more years at what I'm doing now, I'll be completely happy. If I can make my mid-30s running well - we'll see how the next four years go - and in 2016, I don't think that (Olympics) is out of the picture. If I can make it until then I'll be really happy with my career."
For now, though, he's focused on the here and now - and more specifically, on Monday.