Nick Linder had big goals for his final high school season with the Providence Day outdoor track team.
But after being diagnosed with a stress-reaction injury in his left foot in February, just a few days before the New Balance Indoor Nationals, Linder’s last outdoor track season almost never happened.
Linder, an all-state performer the last three seasons in cross-country and track, was forced to wear a protective boot on his left foot for 40 days.
Instead of giving up, he went back to work.
Linder, 18, woke at 5:45 a.m. every day before school to stop at the Siskey YMCA, where he performed a rigorous aqua-jogging regimen. On his way home from school, Linder returned to the YMCA, where he worked out on a bike or in the pool to maintain his stamina.
“Nick took it upon himself to do everything he could to get back,” Providence Day track coach Ben Hovis said. “He had never been a swimmer, and he took up swimming. He had never been a biker, and he was riding 150 miles a week. He would get up every day at 5-something to do these workouts, and then again after school.
“All he kept telling me was, ‘I’ll be back.’”
Linder says the comeback wasn’t easy.
“At first it wasn’t that bad, because there was no set date that I would be able to come back and run, so I figured that when I got the boot off that I would be able to run shortly after that,” said Linder, who says the injury likely happened Feb. 7 when he ran a personal-best 4:13.26 (the best indoor mile time in North Carolina) at the David Oliver Classic. “But each time I went back to the doctor, he would say, ‘We need to keep the boot on a little longer.… It turned out that when I got the boot off, it was really just the midpoint of my recovery, and that’s when I got really discouraged and it got really tough.”
Linder says the encouragement he got from his parents, Ray and Julie; Hovis; and current and former teammates like Ben Huffman, now at Harvard, was huge.
Linder says one of the most important people in his recovery was Sarah Headrick, a sports psychologist with the Waxhaw Track Club who wrote Linder’s aqua-jogging training program.
Linder also got a lot of inspiration from his faith. When he was at his lowest point, he said, he found motivation in an unlikely place.
“At the Siskey YMCA, there’s a box of rolled-up Bible verses that you can take on your way out or in, and I always thought about picking one up but would forget,” Linder said. “But there was a day when I was at my lowest point, and felt like giving up, when I finally remembered to pick up one of the verses and put it in my pocket.… When I went to get my keys out… the verse fell out and I picked it up and read it. It turned out to be Thessalonians 5:18: ‘No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you, who belong to Jesus Christ.’
“After I read it, I just sat there and thought, ‘Whoa, this is incredible.’ It really kept me going.”
Linder finally returned to the Providence Day team April 18 at the Blue Ridge Classic at A.C. Reynolds High. He finished the 3,200 meters (10:19.32) and the 800 meters (2:04.82) with modest times, but immediately feared he had re-injured himself.
“My foot was so tender and hurt so bad after those races, I felt like I was going to throw up the whole ride home,” Linder said.
After a few days off, Linder jogged a 400-meter race at Charlotte Latin on April 22 to make sure he qualified for the upcoming CISAA conference meet. He also ran his slowest mile since his freshman year at a meet at Charlotte Christian for the same purpose.
The week of the CISAA conference championships, Linder finally got in what Hovis called “his only two full workouts of the outdoor season.”
“Those two workouts probably did nothing for Nick physically, but mentally they were huge,” Hovis said.
At the CISAA conference championships May 8, less than three weeks after his return to competition, Linder returned to form. He won the 1,600 and 3,200 and anchored the 4x800 relay team. A week later, at the state tournament, he won state titles in the same three races.
Linder also helped the Providence Day boys’ team capture its third straight state title.
“My legs were really sore and tight going into (the 1,600),” said Linder, who had won the same three state titles as a junior. “But when I was standing on the start line, I thought of a text my dad always sends me saying, ‘You have worked harder than anyone.’”
“At that moment, just before the race I thought about how hard I had worked just to get back,” Linder said. “I wanted to go out as a state champion and I did.”
Linder is now focused on college track. He will continue his running career at Harvard but said he will never forget his senior high school season.
“It sure would have been nice to have had an easier senior season, but I think I learned more about myself this season than ever,” Linder said. “I pushed myself a lot more than I thought I was capable of. Over the next four years, I think I’ll be a better runner for it.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Jay? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.