Parkite Nathan Crumpton brings his journey full circle by punching Olympic ticket
He will be representing American Samoa in the 100-meter sprint
Three years ago, Park City resident and skeleton slider Nathan Crumpton found himself wandering alone on a remote Greek island, trying to stay as far away from the sport as possible and process where his life was at.
He had herniated a disc in his back, preventing him from competing at the World Cup and, ultimately, the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The feeling of four years of work amounting to nothing hurt significantly more than a hypothetical spill in Turn 10 at 80 miles per hour.
“For a while there, I couldn’t face reality,” Crumpton said. “When the announcement was made and I had spent all that money trying to qualify … and try to compete while injured to make the Olympic team and then not being able to do it, it was so heartbreaking. And I had to escape for a while.”
Three years after one of his lowest moments, Crumpton’s journey has come full circle. He has at last made his Olympic dream come true — but not in skeleton, or for Team USA. Crumpton will compete in track and field during the upcoming Tokyo Olympics wearing the colors of American Samoa.
Making a change
Crumpton’s family history is lengthy and wraps across the globe. He was born in Kenya, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Foreign Service, and he has a Kenyan birth certificate. His mother’s family has a Chinese and Polynesian background, which opened the door to him representing American Samoa.
Growing up, he spent most of his childhood in Africa before moving to Australia and then to Virginia, where he graduated from high school.
The plus side of moving around a lot was that he was always playing a different sport. As a kid, he played anything from field hockey to rugby to squash.
“It gave me a really broad athletic base, and I think that’s helped in being able to manage two different sports,” he said.
After he left the U.S. Skeleton & Bobsled Federation following a fierce arbitration battle with one of his teammates, the move to American Samoa opened up the possibility of competing at the Summer Olympics in track. National Olympic committees can use a universality spot to send athletes to the Games if they don’t have any qualifying representatives. In track and field, countries are allotted one spot for each gender, and those spots are usually used in the 100-meter dash.
When he was younger, Crumpton was a track-and-field athlete first and foremost. He competed in the triple jump and long jump at Princeton, though never as a sprinter.
Prior to switching affiliation, Crumpton hadn’t ever been to American Samoa, and his first visit was to file the necessary paperwork to make the transition. However, most of his family lives in Hawaii, where Crumpton once spent an offseason. And he does identify with his Polynesian background.
“While I would consider Hawaii an ancestral home and Polynesia in general a home, everywhere I’ve moved to has been an adopted home for me,” Crumpton said. “And to make American Samoa my adopted home, in many ways it actually feels more welcoming and more familiar than a lot of other places I’ve moved to.”
From one track to another
It turns out that there is some crossover between skeleton and sprinting. Which is good for Crumpton because he’s balancing training between the two sports for Olympic appearances seven months apart from each other.
“They’re both quick-twitch muscle dependence and it’s a lot of speed and power movements,” he said. “I’d say there’s probably a 50% overlap in the training that I’m doing, but there’s a lot of different technique work between sprinting upright and sprinting in a bent position (for skeleton).”
The other major difference is that he has to sprint for more than three times longer in the 100-meter event than he would in skeleton, where the run-up is much shorter before falling onto the sled.
“You have to build up a lot more anaerobic endurance to complete a race,” Crumpton said. “It’s been challenging trying to get my body to go an extra second half of that 100 meters and complete a race without my muscles twitching out.”
It was never the plan to make it to the Olympics in sprinting before skeleton — but skeleton wasn’t always the plan either.
Recruiting former track athletes to switch to sliding sports isn’t a new concept — the Jamaican bobsled team at the 1988 Olympics that inspired the 1993 film “Cool Runnings” is proof enough. The idea is that with faster starts, an athlete can shave off time in a sport that is decided by hundredths of a second, if not thousandths.
“The sprinting start at the beginning of skeleton is so important that track athletes getting involved and doing well in skeleton is not at all unusual,” said Lincoln DeWitt, a retired skeleton slider who finished in fifth place when skeleton made its return to the Olympics in 2002 and previously coached Crumpton. “It’s sort of a common place that a lot of skeleton athletes come from.”
Crumpton was first exposed to skeleton while watching the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, from his home in Breckenridge, Colorado. He then booked a trip to Park City to visit Utah Olympic Park and was immediately hooked.
“(I) saw it on TV, and I thought that was the coolest sport I had seen in my entire life,” he said. “I saw it in person at the Utah Olympic Park, and I thought, ‘That sport looks even cooler in person than on TV. How do I try this?’”
Crumpton went to a combine, which measures an athlete’s speed, strength and athletic ability. From there, he was invited to sliding school in November 2011 to take his first trip down a skeleton track in Lake Placid, New York, the site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics.
In 2014, he raced in his first World Cup event, and he finished the 2016-17 season in 11th place, a career-best. His best World Cup race was a fifth-place finish in 2016, and he won the first gold medal in a winter sport for American Samoa at the North America’s Cup in 2019; both races were in Park City. At the 2016 World Championships, he led all American sliders and ended up eighth.
“He’s very analytical, which is always nice to see,” DeWitt said. “He really studies the sport rather than just trial and error, making it a more methodical approach to learning.”
DeWitt recalls when Crumpton came up with an idea of how to analyze the incredibly important aerodynamics of skeleton in a real-world situation instead of a wind tunnel. Using fog and slow motion video in one part of the track, they could see how the wind would affect the sliders as they sped down the course.
“That was a pretty cool, creative idea of how to use some more scientific analysis of the aerodynamics in a real-world situation as opposed to a wind tunnel,” DeWitt said. “It was interesting just to see what sort of changes in position did and didn’t do as far as affecting your aerodynamics.”
Making it work
As a fellow former jumper from northern Virginia, retired skeleton athlete Veronica Day and Crumpton hit it off immediately. Back when the two made the U.S. national team for the first time, they and a group of more than 12 other racers were trying to travel to Lillehammer, Norway, for a race. The plan was to fly into Frankfurt, Germany, and then drive to Kiel in northern Germany to take a ferry to Norway.
The plan ran into problems immediately when securing rental cars dragged on for far too long. With the ferry two hours away, there were two options: speed down the Autobahn and try to make it, or look for a hotel for the night and miss the first day of training, which was important because nobody in the group had raced at Lillehammer before.
“He’s an ‘I’m going to make it work’ kind of guy,” Day said. “(Crumpton) had no problem kind of rallying the troops and basically saying, ‘No, we’re going. We’re going, we’re going to make this, and if we don’t make it, then we’ll figure it out once we get there, but we’re not going to give up before we start.’”
Throughout his athletic career, Crumpton has been trying to go the extra mile just to make everything work. First, it was getting his skeleton career off the ground. Now, it’s getting prepared for a spot on the world’s biggest stage in a sport that he hasn’t competed in since college.
“To take something you’re really good at and then go to something that, like, needs refinement a year before the Olympics is kind of surprising, but not that surprising that (Crumpton) is the one doing it,” Day said.
Crumpton will be representing a country that has sent 37 athletes to the Summer Olympics since 1988. If he qualifies for next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, it would be the first time American Samoa has made an appearance since it sent a two-man bobsled team in 1994. Even now, after he’s clinched at least one Olympic appearance, his career is still far from the finish line, regardless of if it’s on the track or on ice.
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Wilson announced that this would be his last time competing in a World Cup event at Deer Valley ahead of his retirement at the end of the season.