It is half past 7 in the morning in the southern Japanese island of Kyushu in the middle of July, which means that Olympic sprinter Nathan Ikon Crumpton has already been awake for several hours, sequestered in a tiny hotel room with a bunk bed and tinkering with his manuscript. “It’s over 185,000 words,” Crumpton tells me, speaking by Zoom a couple of weeks before he is scheduled to represent American Samoa in the 100-meter dash in the Tokyo Olympics. That translates to 592 pages, many of them decorated with comments from his editor that he wakes up early to check off each day.
As he tells me this, I assume that he’s working on a memoir about his Olympic journey, which circles the globe and could easily fill volumes. Crumpton, 35, was born in Kenya, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Foreign Service, and growing up he played rugby and field hockey, among other sports. He moved to Switzerland, and Australia, and graduated from Langley High School in Virginia. He ran track at Princeton, ski-bummed in Breckenridge, and decided one day to try his hand at something he’d never done before: competitive skeleton racing, a Winter Olympic sliding sport best known for positioning one’s nostrils just centimeters from total destruction. He got good, really good, briefly best-in-the-U.S. good. His heart and hopes were set on representing the U.S. in the 2018 Winter Olympics. He got injured, then missed out on making the team.
Three years later he ultimately reached his goal of becoming an Olympian—by competing in a different sport (sprinting), during a different season (summer), for a different nation (American Samoa). It’s certainly enough material for a book, particularly one that Crumpton says has “this intricate plot that takes place all over the world.”
But that’s not what Crumpton’s book is about. “It’s about an arrogant hedge-fund manager playboy,” he says, “who lives in New York, makes a ton of money, is the living embodiment of orthodox capitalism, and he’s antagonized by his identical twin brother, who’s a comparative literature professor with a very humble life, a very tragic life.” That’s not all: “I like to think it makes 50 Shades of Grey read like a children’s bedtime story,” says Crumpton. Each day, after immersing himself in that vivid world for a while, he returns to his own reality: attempting to become the first athlete to represent American Samoa in both the Summer and the Winter Olympic Games.
Fewer than 150 athletes over the last century have competed in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. (Last week, U.S. speedskater and baseball player Eddy Alvarez became the latest to do so.) Competitors who have earned this distinction have included dozens of former track athletes, like the United States’ Lauryn Williams, who transition well to winter sliding sports because they begin with a sprint. And then there are the whimsical jack-of-all-trade characters like Hungary’s Bela Szepes, who followed up a Nordic skiing appearance in 1924 with a silver medal in javelin in 1928 and then went on to become a respected sports cartoonist, as one does.
Crumpton falls into both buckets, what with his racy, philosophical manuscript and his website headings (“Athlete - Model - Photographer”) and his global roots and his circuitous journey from track to skeleton to track again and his predilection for using phrases like “positively Lilliputian!” to describe the Japanese trash can in his room on his Patreon blog. And a few weeks after we speak, he finally does it; he races in the Olympics, for real. He comes in last place in his heat, but it’s also just a start: Don’t look now, but the Winter Olympics will be here in six months, and Crumpton has a way of treating finish lines as suggestions, ones that can be ignored.
There may be no Olympics-related water cooler topic more reliable than this one: If you really wanted to make it to the Games, how would you get there? In my experience, there are typically people who are convinced that they could get randomly good at, say, archery, while others optimistically extrapolate from that one glorious summer when they won a bunch of swim races at the neighborhood pool. There’s always someone who says they’d use a familial connection they’d never spoken of before to obtain eligibility in another country, and since the last Winter Games, there’s always someone who mentions the queen of this thought experiment, the no-trick halfpipe gal. Pretty much anyone who catches a glimpse of bobsled, luge, or skeleton on TV can’t help but murmur: “It might be fun to try that.”
Crumpton demonstrated the reality of what it takes to actually go out and do it. In college he excelled at the triple jump and sought to qualify for the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in the event, but wasn’t able to, and figured that his track career had come to a conclusion. He graduated and moved out West to a ski town; he was watching the Vancouver Olympics on TV in 2010 when skeleton caught his eye. “I thought, ‘That’s just the coolest sport that I’ve ever seen in my whole life,’” he says. He found out about a skeleton combine taking place in the summer of 2011, and was then invited to a “skeleton school” where he was strapped into a special “safety sled” about halfway up the skeleton track to see how he liked the feeling of flying downhill face first.
“It’s just ‘Do you like this sensation or not?’” Crumpton says. “And the attrition rate is about 50 percent—50 percent of people say, ‘This is not for me.’ They freak out. They say, ‘I’m not going to do this,’ and they never do it again.” Crumpton spent the next many years of his life doing it again and again.
First he learned basic technique in Lake Placid, where he got so bruised up it was difficult to hold a fork. He grew accustomed to the sensation of running while doubled over and pushing a sled, and he amped up his strength work. From there he spent several years traveling, learning new venues, and trying to make the U.S. national team, ultimately moving to Utah to train. (He supported himself in part by modeling; one of his gigs was playing a USA snowboarder in a 2014 Sochi commercial.) In 2014 he made his first national team, and in the 2016 World Championships, he was the top U.S. finisher and 8th in the world.
But a herniated disc he blames on carrying the heavy skeleton sleds on one side of his body all the time caused him to miss most of the season leading up to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang. When he failed to make the Olympic roster, it felt like “tragedy, heartbreak, and what I thought was the end of an Olympic dream,” Crumpton says. He went to a Greek island by himself for a few weeks to brood; it was there that he conceived of what would turn into his novel. Things unraveled further when another Team USA skeleton athlete ranked below Crumpton filed an arbitration appeal against the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation that challenged the terms of their ranking and World Cup selection system (and hinged on the interpretation of the phrase: “after St. Moritz.”). The complaint was successful, and under the revised calculations, Crumpton lost his spot on the team and, in the aftermath, the benefits (a financial stipend, health insurance) that came along with it. It was an unpleasant experience that irreparably soured the relationship between Crumpton and the federation.
So he sought a new way forward. With his Kenyan birth certificate, he looked into whether the nation might be interested in having a Winter Olympics skeleton delegation, and flew there for a meeting. “Some were interested,” Crumpton says. “Some thought it was really cool. But ultimately, it would have taken an act of Parliament to get me in the system.” He did more research into his heritage connections and found that through his mother’s mother, he had Polynesian lineage recognized by the American Samoa contingent. Crumpton has lived in and visited a lot of places in his life, but American Samoa wasn’t one of them; the first time he went there, in 2019, he began filling out paperwork to resurrect a dormant bobsled-skeleton federation that had been established prior to (and abandoned after) the 1994 Lillehammer Games. His monthly stipend from American Samoa, he says, is $1,500—double what he once made as a top skeleton racer in America.
While the focus during the Games tends to go to the small subset of best-of-the-best-of-the-best competitors who go into their events kinda-expecting to medal, there are thousands and thousands of athletes who go to the Olympics in order to participate in the Olympics. Really, they’re the majority! “There’s definitely been a sense of just dogged, almost irrational determinism and determination to get to this spot,” Crumpton reflects. “Because when you think about where my track and field career left off, that was 2008 that I was in college. And so this Olympic journey has been, now, 13 years.” But it’s now or never: “I sort of sense that athletic mortality on the horizon,” he says.
During his skeleton training a couple of summers ago, for kicks, he decided to see how fast he could run a hundred-meter dash, which he hadn’t officially raced but had still messed around with a couple of times back at college practices. He learned that he was faster than he’d realized. He also had an administrative tailwind of sorts: “The way it works for a really small team that doesn’t have a strong athletic history like American Samoa,” Crumpton says, “is there’s something called the IOC universality rule, where if no one hits the really tough Olympic standard to gain entry, which most nations don’t hit, what’s allowed is you get one allocation for the top track and field athlete.” He set to work on becoming that athlete.
In order to represent American Samoa, Crumpton had to beat another sprinter, 24-year-old Nainoa Soto Thompson. Because of COVID-19, the pair raced separately in a time-trial format, rather than head to head, and Crumpton ran faster. “I ended up edging him out by eight-hundredths of a second,” he says. “And he’s young […] he’s sort of coming into his prime. And so in all likelihood, this was the last year that I probably could beat him. If he keeps on his trajectory that he’s been improving, he’ll probably be faster than me next year.”
Going into his race this past weekend, Crumpton was well aware of the competitive realities of his summertime situation. His goals when racing the 100 meters included finishing in under 11 seconds; by contrast, the top U.S. finisher at the Olympic trials, Trayvon Bromell, ran a 9.77. A video posted on the American Samoa Track and Field Association’s Facebook page of Crumpton training this May with Richard Thompson, a former Olympic sprinter from Trinidad and Tobago, demonstrated the literal distance between them.
Perhaps this is why a CBC columnist writing a piece about the weirdness of these coronavirus-ravaged Olympics singled out Crumpton, of all Olympians, as a grumpy, cheeky example of the far reaches of who might wind up winning if all the actual contenders were suddenly sidelined by positive tests. “He’s 35,” Morgan Campbell wrote, “and didn’t even crack his school’s top 20 as a Princeton student, and his best sport appears to be skeleton. But if some younger, faster guys get sick, and some more land in lockdown because of protocol, we can’t rule out the possibility that a part-time sprinter might run 11.20 to win gold.” (Call this argument Schrodinger’s Crumpton?) Crumpton, as usual, took this in good humor and smooth stride, pointing out on his Patreon blog that “I never actually ran 100 meters in college, as I was more valuable to the team as a jumper.”
This weekend, running into a slight headwind, Crumpton officially became an Olympian. With a time of 11:27, he finished last in his heat, but he finished. “To be called an ‘Olympian’ and to have earned the right to the post-nominative title ‘OLY’ is an honor that even Jeff Bezos can’t buy,” he wrote on his Patreon, in a post critiquing his own performance. (His start? Acceptable, particularly because he avoided his worst nightmare of a false start. His opening strides? Strong. His finish? “Lackluster.”
In general, though, his goals are broader than that, and they extend well past his race this weekend and into the winter. There is a manuscript to edit, and another Olympics to try to qualify for—an Olympics that is coming up in a flash. Crumpton tells me that this October, he hopes to compete in a skeleton test race at the facility in Beijing where the 2022 games will be held next February. That test run was supposed to take place back in March, he says, but it got postponed; the postponement enabled him to start training a month earlier for the 100-meter sprint than he had planned to.
“That actually probably helped me qualify for the Summer Games,” Crumpton says, “by getting that extra bit of training for track.” It’s a slippery thing, opportunity, and Crumpton knows how much hustle it takes to catch up to it.