“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” – Beverly Sills
The dream requires another definition, another conversation. The dream of earning a spot on the U.S. Olympic Track & Field team is something that has driven her for as long as she can remember. To be honest, it was never about the victories or running times or whether or not she eventually could earn that coveted spot.
For Nicole, it was all about the effort.
That’s where the dream and the sacrifice meet head on. Early on, it was long solo runs in the cold wind and sleet. Hot track workouts where the heat and humidity oozed off the track. It was 50-degree ice baths at night, because her entire body ached. Or her bandaged, blistered and bleeding feet after a race. It was missed bridal showers. Spring breaks. Weekends hanging out with friends.
Later on, during the most important stages of the run at her Olympic dream, Nicole worked full-time as a marketing communications specialist in Production Print Solutions for Canon Solutions America Inc. (The company is dedicated to improving workflow efficiency and document processes in organizations of all sizes and industries, while helping them reduce waste.)
This is where the routine holds true. To make everything work, she had to methodically schedule both responsibilities into her calendar. She had to stay on task and make priority decisions based on each task, each and every day. Nothing on either side of the line could get dropped. Canon afforded her the flexibility in her schedule to shift her attention to what needed to be done and when.
A typical training cycle involved waking up before dawn; checking emails and working until 7:30 a.m., where she would head out for a morning run. After she returned, she would make breakfast, work until lunchtime, and then hit the gym for her core/weight/stretching routine. After working for a few more hours, she’d start her afternoon workout, which typically involved swimming, biking or a shorter run.
Things were trickier when she had to travel for a work event or a race. If she was on the road for work, work was the priority and she would train when she was done, and vice-versa. It wasn’t uncommon to see her logging time on the treadmill at 9 p.m. during a major tradeshow or Canon sales meeting.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice that goes into it, which not everyone sees,” Nicole says. “But those are the things you forget about when you race well. A good race makes all of the not-so-fun aspects of training worth it. And when you hit your goal, you know you wouldn’t change a single thing. People always ask me if I just love to run? It’s a tough question, because I’m really not sure. I wouldn’t say I love running on its own. I like running. What I really love is competing. And not just against others, but against myself, too. I like the feeling of pushing myself to the limit to see how good I can be. The most exhilarating feeling is exceeding your expectations with a race that you win or a time that you run – just knowing you got yourself to an incredible achievement. That’s the thrill for me.”
“Balance is not something you find, it’s something you create” – Jana Kingsford
If there is a secret to the success of Nicole Schappert Tully, it is that the challenges of doing two things right are making sure one goal is not impeding the other. In order for her to run well, she has to make sure she’s not traveling too much or logging too much overtime. And she has to make sure her travel back and forth to track meets or training didn’t cause her to miss meetings or deadlines.
The path became an endless cycle of re-evaluating her daily work and training schedules. The question she is asked a lot is whether the continual balance of executive-athlete is worth the dance. “Ultimately, I think there is a limit as too how far I can go in my corporate career while I am still running. But my running career will also end at some point. And at that point, I’ll be able to go further in my corporate career. For now, the balance works.”
Is the grind for everyone? The answer, honestly, is no. Nicole says that some athletes need to focus on their sport 100 percent. For her, there was never a second thought. “Sometimes, I don’t know what the drive is. Running at an internationally competitive level has always been my dream, so I’m driven to see how good I can be. At the same time, I worked really hard in college to graduate first in my class (of marketing majors). So I didn’t want that to go to waste as I pursued running. I was lucky enough to find a company that offered me the opportunity to work with some flexibility while pursuing my athletic goals.”
“A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many as ways they’re capable of understanding.” – Steve Prefontaine
Nicole’s commitment is not without pedigree. The daughter of Ken Schappert and Jane Ackerman grew up in a sporting family. Both of her parents competed in the Olympic Trials (1972 and 1976). Dad was on the track team, while mom was on the swim team. Growing up in Delray Beach, Fla., Nicole admits she came from an abnormal family. How else can you explain her early belief that everybody’s parents were Olympic athletes?
From the time she was 9 years old watching the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, she dreamt of being an Olympian. When her older brother started running for the peewee summer track team, Nicole pushed her parents to let her take part. When they refused to fudge her age, she went religiously to the track with her brother and dad to run sprints.
And even though she hadn’t started running competitively yet, those sprints on the track fueled her desire. When she became serious, people took notice. She won state running titles as a student-athlete at Pope John Paul II High School in Delray. She attended Wake Forest University, but after seeing no progression in her running development, she transferred to her parent’s alma mater, Villanova University. While pouring her heart into her running, she earned a business and marketing major, eventually meeting her future husband, Sean Tully, on the Wildcats’ track team.
Running for Wildcats coach Gina Procaccio in her first year after transferring, Nicole had a breakout year and dropped her 1500m personal best time by 8 seconds. In 2009, she placed in the Top 30 at the NCAA Women’s Division I Cross Country Championship and was fifth in the Big East Conference championships. Her most successful collegiate year came in 2010, when she was twice runner-up in Big East competition (1000 meters indoors and 1500 meters outdoors) and finished sixth at the NCAA Women’s Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships 3000 meters, earning 3 All-American honors that year.
After graduation, Nicole studied for a master’s degree in communication at Rutgers University and continued running. In 2012, she dropped her 1500-meter best significantly and made a name for herself among the nation’s elite runners. And the accolades started flooding in – a new best in the mile run in 2012 (4:30.65) to win at the Morton Games in Dublin, which landed her in the Top 10 globally for the outdoor mile. She ranked 10th nationally in the 1500 meters at both the USA Indoor Track and Field Championships and the U.S. Olympic Trials. By the end of the season, Nicole had knocked 11 seconds off her best, recording 4:06.87 minutes in Italy.
Transitioning to the professional running game (she failed to make the national finals in 2013), her debut on the international level netted an eighth place finish in the 1500 meters at the Summer Universiade in Kazan (Tatarstan, Russia). In her first appearance on the major international track circuit, she set a 3000-meter best of 8:55.48 minutes to place tenth at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York.
In 2015, working with legendary coach Frank Gagliano at NJNY Track Club, Nicole began to run longer distances, starting with a fourth-place finish over two miles at the 2015 USA Indoor Track and Field Championships. At the Payton Jordan Invitational, she ran her first 5000 meters and surprised everyone by taking third with a time of 15:05.58 minutes. The race, which met the qualifying standard for the national team, was more than 25 seconds faster than she anticipated before the race. In her second race at 5000 meters, she won the national title at the 2015 USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Chasing the 2016 Olympic standard in 1500 meters, she posted a 4:05.89 time in Heusden, Belgium.
When the final numbers for 2016 were tallied up, Nicole finished ranked 25th in the world in 5000 meters. On May 1, 2016, she improved her personal best in 5000 meters to 15:04.08.
“Out on the roads, there is fitness and self-discovery and the persons we were destined to be.” – George Sheehan
Nobody really knows what lies ahead. When she missed out on the Olympic spot this past July, Nicole took time to process the journey and what it has meant. With each day, there are things that can push you forward, and those that can pull you down. Today, she has been running competitively for about half her life. The mindset is ingrained into who she is and what she does.
Along the way, despite the fact that running mostly is a solo sport, there have been people by Nicole’s side. Her parents. Her siblings. Her husband. Her coaches, especially Gagliano. And there is an endless array of teammates, trainers, doctors, physical therapists, massage therapists and friends.
“It feels like a part of me,” Nicole says. “Running makes me feel like myself. I’m at home when I’m on the track or on a training run. When I was a kid, I had absolutely no reason to believe I would ever be an Olympian. I never lost sight of that dream and what it would take to get there. Even when I finally comprehended how incredibly competitive the U.S. Track scene was and how few people compete in the Olympic Trials, I never lost sight.”
All great athletes will tell you they don’t live in moments of regret. You train. You compete. You win. You lose. And then you get ready for the next call. For now, Nicole is setting her sights on qualifying for the 2017 IAAF World Championships in London next summer. And while she’s not sure if she’ll make a run at the 2020 Olympics, she plans to keep on training and competing.
“You have to love what you’re doing,” Nicole says. “For me, I didn’t want to delay anything, so I pursued my career while running professionally. I’m quite happy with my work/life/running balance. It takes a lot of time and sweat equity to perform with the best runners in the world, so that’s what I do. And that’s how I approach most of my life. There are very few things I don’t do to the best of my ability. My college coach once told me to ‘just have fun and race.’ If you’re not having fun at this stage in the game, there’s no way you’re going to make it. It’s too much work to not enjoy the process.”