The Mental Game
WCA’s Ryley Nelson Dominates with Precision and Passion
by Alicia Underlee Nelson
Photography by Janssen Photography
Ryley Nelson runs the gravel roads of rural Grant County with passion and precision, even through the blazing heat of a Minnesota summer. The rhythm of his breath and the muted patter of his running shoes keep barely audible time as he moves past family farms and untamed prairies, his tempo strong and steady.
“If you didn’t see Ryley running, you won’t know he’s running,” says his coach John VanKempen. “You don’t hear him breathing; you don’t hear his feet flapping. It’s natural. He has a natural gait. He’s a very efficient runner.”
The senior runs track in the spring for West Central Area High School in Barrett, Minnesota, competing in the 3200, 1600 and 800-meter races. But his fall sport – cross country – is closest to his heart.
“I definitely like cross country the best — the longer the distance, the better,” says Ryley. “I just like the whole team atmosphere of cross country a lot too, not just the distance. It’s not just about the individual; you’re waiting for your team to cross too.”
Ryley Nelson had an extraordinary season, both as an individual competitor and as a team member, during his junior year in 2015. “As a freshman and tenth grader, he was good. But he really put on a lot of miles between sophomore and junior year,” said VanKempen. “Going into his junior year, that’s when he broke out.”
Ryley is built like an elite distance runner and blessed with an efficient stride. This season, Ryley’s coaches want him to continue weight training to build his strength and add muscle to his lean frame.
“If you look at marathon runners, distance runners, those guys that do well are built like Ryley,” said VanKempen. “I was just talking to a college coach and I told him that Ryley’s a bag of lungs on a set of legs. He’s a little kid and it looks like two thirds of his body is legs.”
“Ryley was always small in stature,” agrees Assistant Coach Rick Toms. “He’s always had the drive and desire to do well; it was just a matter of his body catching up to that. He’s got a small frame with a big engine. It’s served him well so far. I think he’s got a lot of room to improve yet, as he gets stronger physically.”
He set a new school record in October 2015, running the 5K in just 16:24 at the Park Rapids Invitational. Ryley also finished 1st in the 5K at the MSHSL Section 6A meet with a time of 16:54 and 8th overall at the MSHSL State Championships at 16:25. He and his teammates on the West Central Area Knights boy’s cross country team finished 1st at the MSHSL Section 6A meet and 4th overall at the MSHSL State Championships.
Ryley is focused on competing at the state level again in 2016. This year’s contest will be held at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota on November 5th, following the section 6A meet at New London-Spicer High School on October 27th. His individual goal for state is simple. “I just want to do the best I can and place higher than last year,” he says.
The West Central Area High School boys cross country team has similarly high expectations for the 2016 season. “Today they set a team goal and that was to get on the podium this year, within the top three teams in the state,” say VanKempen. “I think that’s attainable for us.”
Ryley has been on the cross county team since 7th grade and has watched it become a more cohesive unit over the years. “I think our team has just built up since I’ve started,” he says. ‘I think that we’ve all become stronger together. I think it’s just time to have fun with the team, to know that it’s my last year and just really try to achieve to the highest of my ability — to really work hard and see where we can go.”
As a senior, Ryley will help set the tone for the Knights’ season. “He’s definitely the leader,” says Toms. “All the kids respect and listen to him.” Ryley often leads team warm-ups and is quick to offer advice and assistance to his teammates.
“He likes to help the younger runners and lead by example,” agrees his mom, Tammy Nelson. His younger sister, Teagan returns to the women’s team this year, so Ryley will again be traveling to meets with family. His older brother Devin also ran cross country before graduating in 2015 and moving on to Augustana College.
Ryley credits his parents for creating a strong, supportive environment, both in the stands and at home in the farmhouse that’s been in the family for generations. “They’re amazing,” Ryley says of Tammy and his dad, Jon. “They’re always there to support me in everything. They’re always coming to meets. They’re really supportive of everything I do.”
And he does a lot. Amiable and even-keeled, Ryley balances his training and meets with a full schedule of academic and artistic activities. He’s been involved in the student council since the 7th grade and currently serves as President of the National Honor Society.
He’s a musician as well. He plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophone, performs in musicals and sings in the choir. He even toured Europe this July, singing with The Music Ambassadors of Minnesota.
It was hard to take the time away from running to make the trip, but Ryley has proven that he’s good at the balancing game. In just a few weeks, he was back on those gravel roads, pouring his energy into the sport that he loves.
He trains with a quiet intensity that occasionally baffles those around him. “He’s way more dedicated than I’ve ever been at anything in my life!” Tammy says with a chuckle. “He works hard at it. He’s just got some internal drive that just keeps him going. He’s always looking for that next push.”
Ryley agrees that this drive has been an important component of his success in recent years. “I think for me, it’s a lot more mental than physical. I’ve never been a big guy, so I rely a lot more on my mental side to push myself harder,” he says. “I’ve never been the biggest kid or the fastest kid, so you’ve got to keep working hard. Try not to get discouraged and just keep working.”
He passes on that wisdom to the underclassmen on his team and to new runners in general. “It’s not gonna be pretty right away,” he says. “But if you keep rolling with it, you’ll eventually get better and you’ll have more fun the further you go.”
That’s solid advice for both running and for life. After his senior season ends, Ryley hopes to continue running at the collegiate level. He’s visiting colleges now, looking for the one that feels right.
His family and his coaches aren’t worried. They know Ryley will step into the next phase of his life and his running career with the same deliberate discipline he’s applied to everything he’s done so far.
“He not only has the physical ability, but he also has the mental toughness. And that combination is what makes an elite distance runner,” says Toms. “I think he’s going to do well, wherever he decides to go.”
“He’s willing to work for what he wants,” says Tammy. “And as long as he keeps doing that, he’s got a great future ahead of him.”