In the fall of 2013, Tim Nichols and Luke O’Connor were newcomers to the Tufts cross country program. They joined a senior-heavy team one year removed from a NESCAC championship. However, the team had graduated some of their fastest runners a year earlier, such as Matt Rand (LA ’12) and Kyle Marks (LA ’12), and it had just enough room for the two first-years to make a mark.
At the Southern Maine Invitational, donning Tufts colors for the first time, Nichols and O’Connor finished 19th and 21st overall, respectively. They even secured spots in Tufts’ top five, as Nichols finished third for the team and O’Connor finished fourth. The first-year duo’s successes only continued. That year, their accomplishments included top-30 finishes at NESCACs, top-50 finishes at Regional Championships and qualifying for the National Championship meet where Nichols finished second for the Jumbos and 100th overall, and O’Connor finished fifth for his team and 157th overall. Throughout the season, they consistently finished in Tufts’ top seven, a rare feat for one first-year, let alone two.
Their performances raised the eyebrows of coach Michael Schmidt.
“They came in and they definitely had an impact right away,” Schmidt said. “They scored as [first-years] in nationals. Each year they have made large steps forward in how dedicated they take their training and as leaders. I think the team as a whole has followed. They’ve raised the expectation of what it means to work hard and find a positive balance on and off the course.”
Nichols and O’Connor, now senior co-captains for the cross country squad, are coming off a one-two finish at their last NESCAC championship on Saturday. They have solidified themselves as the top two cross country runners in Tufts’ history, according to Schmidt. But what the team has given them may trump all they have given it, providing them with a goofy outlet and valuable lessons that transcend the course.
“Running at Tufts has taught me to stay cool in stressful situations as best as I can,” Nichols said. “I’m not really that good at it, but I am pretty sure I’d be a mess without having developed that skill even slightly.”
While running is perceived as an individual sport where you can only run as fast as you push yourself, this is hardly the case. For Nichols and O’Connor, they have found that their team’s support has contributed immensely to their successes.
“I think there will always be the constant of there being a wacky group of people that care for each other,” O’Connor said. “I think that it speaks volumes to our team that we road trip half way across the country to cheer for [our] teammates at nationals. And that those numbers are usually in larger number of fans [than] for schools close to the course.”
It’s the members that make the cross country team so rich in character. It is a seemingly symbiotic relationship of wackiness, one where the unit and the individual mutually benefit from each other’s strange antics, which potentially leads to a closer team and better performances overall.
“There are so many artifacts that still remain from my [first year] that I feel like we try to keep alive, like certain traditions or jokes,” Nichols said. “But personalities interact in so many different ways that it’s always different from year to year. I’d say we’ve become a little more weird since my [first year], which I really like.”
Although Nichols and O’Connor’s college running careers have followed very similar trajectories, their backgrounds in the sport share little resemblance. Nichols, an Ohio native, has been running since he was in fourth grade, when he started entering local races. He joined a cross country team in seventh grade and by the time he entered South Range High School he was already very serious about running. He ran for three seasons of high school, eliminating any opportunity to play other sports. O’Connor, on the other hand, did not start running until his first year at Jones College Prep in Chicago, Illinois. Here he split up his time running with swimming in the winter. Yet having each other at Tufts has pushed the two to achieve their goals.
“I think that having Tim [Nichols] as a partner for all of college has helped me to get through some tough workouts and miles,” O’Connor said. “I know that Tim will be there to help me push it when I’m feeling pretty bad. He also keeps things light before races, which is great because I get too serious.”
“Having Luke [O’Connor] as a teammate keeps things interesting, and even that could be an understatement,” Nichols said. “Starting out as a [first-year], Luke and my other classmate Michael [Caughron] were solid friends that made the transition into college so incredibly smooth. Since then, we’ve gained a lot of experience together on the course and on the track, and having the opportunity to talk through those experiences, whether they are racing frustrations or plans on how to execute a race, has made all the difference in my athletic career. It’s always nice to know you have a buddy going into every run, workout and race.”
Their camaraderie and competitive nature has fostered a winning environment for Tufts cross country. Coach Joel Williams attests that their influence can be found in more than just the younger runners’ times.
“The younger guys look up to them every practice, every easy run, every competition,” Williams said. “They look up to them as their leaders, both their physical and emotion[al] leaders. They are our two low sticks at every competition, so they set the tone for how we place. But I think outside of that, the emotional impact those guys have can’t be measured. It’s on and off the course. It’s a coach’s dream to have two guys at the front that are not only phenomenal athletes but are great people, great students. We’re fortunate to be in a situation with those two at the top.”
The captains will leave the team in the hands of a young core of sophomores, including Brian Djerf, Brian Reaney, Dylan Jones and Christian Swenson, as well as first-year David Ng’etich. Nichols and O’Connor believe in this core’s potential and that the future of Tufts running is bright.
“I couldn’t be more excited for the team next year,” Nichols said. “There is so much young talent on the team that is really going to develop into a strong pack in the future. I can tell they’re all going to be pushing each other to get better given their current positions. There are also so many unique personalities and leaders, even an entrepreneur, that will definitely keep the goofy vibe of the team alive all the while maintaining the success that Tufts University Cross Country has seen over the past few years.”
As far as this season goes, the duo still has Regionals on Nov. 12 and Nationals on Nov. 19. Nichols and O’Connor both received All-New England Honors after their 1-2 finish at the NESCAC Championships last week. This is Nichols’ third All-NESCAC First Team honors, having made it to the second team during his first-year season. This is O’Connor’s second consecutive First Team honors, having made the second team in his sophomore campaign. Nichols is vying to be an All-American for the second consecutive year.
As they close the door on Tufts cross country, they reach a crossroads with the sport of running. O’Connor plans to keep running four to five times a week, but would like to leave room for other activities, such as hiking. Nichols, on the other hand, has mixed feelings about running after graduation.
“As of right now, I’m really tired and the thought of running after graduating seems really daunting,” Nichols said. “But, right after college could be a perfect time to run a really fast marathon, so if I am feeling up to it, I might go for it.”