While in American Samoa enjoying a gap in his training schedule during the summer of 2019, skeleton racer Nathan Ikon Crumpton flipped to the Pacific Games on his TV. Men from neighboring archipelagic countries like Guam and Fiji, as well as host Samoa, were lining up to race the 100 meters. And Crumpton had the same thought that occasionally runs through the mind of just about anyone who was ever remotely competitive in a sport:
I wonder if I can do that?
So he put on a pair of spikes and suddenly he was on the fast track to the Olympics.
The Olympics had been Crumpton’s goal anyway — he’d just been focused on the Winter ones. That’s why he took up skeleton a decade ago. In fact, he was in the process of plotting his path to Beijing 2022 when the Pacific Games caught his attention.
“For things to come full circle, to go on this wild, decade-plus long tangent in skeleton, and then to come around and have this opportunity in track and field and to be able to fill that childhood dream?” Crumpton, who is based out of Park City, said while working out at the University of Utah prior to leaving for Tokyo. ”It’s hard to put into words.”
Crumpton still intends to compete in Beijing. If he does, he’ll become the first athlete to represent American Samoa in both the Summer and Winter Games. He would also have his name etched alongside the approximately 130 two-season athletes in Olympic history, only about half of whom competed in a winter sport other than bobsled.
Of course, those athletes had at least two years between Games to prepare. Crumpton will have six months. Plus, sprinting and skeleton have less in common when it comes to training than it may seem. Making the turnaround will be tougher than the Games themselves.
“Usually you have a year break so that you can recalibrate and you can shift,” he said. “And it feels like I’m having to do this all at more than double speed to make it all happen.”
But a 35-year-old skeleton racer can compete in the Olympics in the 100 meters, a distance he hadn’t run since high school, who’s to doubt it can happen?
From Team USA to American Samoa
It’s no wonder Crumpton seized on the opportunity before him. He knows how fickle Olympic qualifying can be.
A five-time national team skeleton racer, Crumpton was well-positioned to represent Team USA in Pyeongchang in 2018. He finished the 2016-17 World Cup season ranked No. 11 overall and No. 2 in the United States. He also set the current American start record on the track in South Korea during a test event.
But, competing in one of the most dangerous Olympic sports, injuries were bound to happen. Crumpton herniated a disc in his back, missing almost the entire 2017-18 season and his first shot at the Olympics. Shortly after, he had a falling out with the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and went looking for another country to compete for. He considered Kenya, his birth country, but instead chose American Samoa. He said he has Polynesian heritage through his maternal grandmother, who was raised in Hawaii.
Because American Samoa had only had one previous entrant in the Winter Olympics — in bobsled — he had to start over from scratch, racing in lower-tier races to build up enough points to get him into World Cup events. Along the way, he picked up American Samoa’s first medals in skeleton.
Yet, all along, he kept thinking back to the day he recognized an untapped opportunity.
Pursuing the Olympic dream
Crumpton had run track in high school and at Princeton. His best events were the triple and long jumps, but he remembered running the 100 in 11.6 seconds once.
“I was wondering, ‘Can I be competitive?’ And I wasn’t sure,” Crumpton said he was thinking while watching the Pacific Games races. “I hadn’t done sprinting in over a decade for a full hundred because in skeleton we train for such a short distance. And so I just went out and I hand-timed a hundred and thought, ‘I’m actually in the ballpark here. I think I can challenge for the spot.’”
And the spot is really the spot.
According to something called the Olympic universality rule, because the country of 55,000 people did not have any athletes meet the Olympic ‘A’ standard in any track and field event, American Samoa could select just one man and one woman to represent it at the Games. It came down to a virtual runoff, where Crumpton and his closest competitor were given a week to submit their fastest electronically tracked time in the 100.
By a margin of a few hundredths of a second, Crumpton became American Samoa’s track man in Japan. In total, the country has six athletes competing in four sports: track, sailing, swimming and weightlifting.
On Friday night, he knelt on the crimson red track inside Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium, put his feet in his blocks and had the experience of a lifetime. His time of 11.27 seconds was two-tenths of a second better than his personal record though it and placed him last in his heat. He did not advance to the semifinals, nor did he expect to. He was mostly self-trained, aside from two months at the IMG Academy in Florida, and was well aware of his capabilities.
His goals, he said, were to “Have fun and not to false start.”
In a few days, though, as other athletes decompress and enjoy the spoils of their labor, Crumpton will begin training again.
He has a laundry list of technical issues he’ll need to work on. Most of them are tweaks to his form that he made to be faster in the 100 but that work against him in the skeleton. He’ll have to work on sprinting while bent over again, as he does at the skeleton start, and he’ll have to put on some weight.
“So, skeleton push, it’s much more strength-focused, it’s more weight-lifting focused,” he said. “It helps if you have a little bit of extra weight to break the inertia of the sled, whereas in sprinting you’re carrying just your own body weight and it helps to be a little bit lighter.”
But Crumpton will have to be especially mindful of how his body is reacting to any changes he makes. He doesn’t have time to deal with injuries, even small ones.
“I’m also a little bit concerned about just how much I’m beating my body up,” he said. “It’s a lot of turmoil, just to keep beating it up and breaking it down day after day and kind of shift gears. I’ve just blown through my physiotherapy budget.”
But it’s just for six more months.
Just before the Tokyo Games began, the International Olympic Committee amended its slogan — “Faster, Higher, Stronger” — to include the word “Together.” And now that Crumpton’s had a taste of it and been immersed in it in Tokyo, he believes in that unquestionably. He can’t wait to be part of it again.
“Pursuing the Olympic dream is about personal ambition and pushing my body to the limits and about how far I can go, how far I can take the body,” he said. “But it’s also about the universality and the solidarity of it. I mean, coming together, especially someone like myself who has a very international background, someone who was born in Kenya and has Chinese and Polynesian roots and European roots. Being able to come together and enjoy the international fraternity? It’s a huge part of it. For sure.”