Hugh Nicklason

A Home Away From Home

With Tasmania tattooed on his chest, distance runner Hugh Nicklason shares his journey on moving overseas in pursuit of wider ambitions.

Introduction

My knees were tucked up under my chin sitting t in the back of the old Honda CRV.

Phones at the ready, we were eagerly awaiting the moment the odometer ticked over the 200,000 mile mark.

That's 321,868 kilometres.

If driving on the wrong side of the road wasn't enough, the fifteen hour flight to America's west coast suggested we were a long way from home.

In the front seat sits one of Tasmania's most promising middle distance runners, who also happens to be the state's biggest advocate.

You don't have to look any further than the tattoo on his chest or the antique Cascade paraphernalia that litters his bedroom to realise this.

Yet also in front of me sits someone who finds himself strangely at home here in America.

As we travel along towards our next camping destination, it’s a great opportunity to talk with Hugh about his running journey to date; and how he ended up in the land of the free...

Hugh running at crater lake oregon
hugh running on pavement

Finding his feet in running

“Ever since I can remember, running was just something I was good at.”

"I started in grade three, which seems a while ago now, but I remember winning my primary school cross country and ended up coming second at the inter-school competition."

"In grade five I made the state championships and I remember Mum saying “Hughie, you’re new to this event and probably going to get beaten, so don’t get ahead of yourself...”

"I actually ended up coming second and everyone was like 'What the hell was that? Where did that come from?'”

"From there I met my first coach in Hobart, Jy Webb, and started progressing and started making state teams."

"It was just a time that I really enjoyed my running and didn’t have a care in the world."

A cup of tea and the need for speed

We finally arrive at Eel Lake on the Oregon Coast.

Andy, along with Hugh's room mate Daniel, have headed off to get some supplies while Hugh makes us both a cup of Rooibos vanilla tea (highly recommend if you haven't already discovered it!).

We’re around ten days into our camping trip, departing California for the likes of Crater Lake and Yosemite Valley - easily some of the most spectacular places I’ve been.

With cuppa' in hand and, despite the need for a good shower, the notion of not having a care in the world seems relevant.

"I think hindsight plays a big part in my answer, but at this stage in my life, I really love the therapeutic side of running."

"It bucks the trend these days but I never take my watch with me on a run."

"Quite often I'll just check the time when I leave and when I get back."

"It’s nice to get back to running for the feel of my body and taking in the surroundings."

"At the same time, I do love just running fast."

Hugh's love for running fast is an understatement.

Rewind to the previous week’s casual jog around the snow capped roads of Crater Lake, Oregon, and Andrew and I find out the hard way that Hugh has an unwavering need for speed.

Reflections and decisions

We’re 1,883 metres above sea level, having to stop every five minutes or so due to the lack of oxygen in the air.

It's not the first time today that Hugh has dropped our group due to our lack of pace and he's steamed ahead.

Luckily, the white covered trees and vast surroundings make it worthwhile.

(Editors note: It was however a thirty minute run that fellow Tassie Athlete contributor Andrew won’t soon forget - with the altitude and pace making it the toughest of his life to date).

Grappling with tough decisions was also a process Hugh faced once finishing school in Tasmania.

“I think for a lot of athletes in Tassie, there comes a time when you're a big fish in a relatively small pond."

"It’s certainly not that the quality of training conditions or locations aren’t there, but the level of competition is limited to who’s around you or how and where you can travel."

"I was doing well with my running on a state and national level and when I finished school I had to make a big decision around what, and where, I wanted to my future in running to be."

"I was approached by a few colleges in the United States but it wasn’t something I’d really even considered."

"I love Tassie a lot, and initially I turned down the scholarships because I wanted to make a decision on my terms. I knew things were very different in America. The system is different, the training is different. It’s not something we can really experience here."

"I think a big factor for me was that, to achieve my goals, I kind of knew I had to move away.

"So I figured if I was going to move, I may as well make the most of it."

"My mindset started to shift - if I stayed here in Australia I wasn’t necessarily in a position to make an Australian team but at a college, I was in a position to receive a full scholarship, an education paid for plus the additional support of gear and accommodation."

The allure of gear, support and accommodation was immediately clear.

I recall Andy and I standing in the hallway of the University of San Fransisco, around day two of our month in America.

We’re waiting for Hugh while he’s in a meeting with his coach and the array of Nike-clad uniform on the plastic models in front of us highlight the level of support and professionalism within the American collegiate system.

A not-so-smooth transition to SF

“San Fransisco really suited the criteria I’d set for choosing a college here.”

“I wanted somewhere relatively central, with a really good academic program to compliment their sports program. Looking back, it was the perfect choice - it’s an incredible city.”

“However, my transition wasn't smooth at all."

"When I made the move I was the unfittest I'd probably ever been."

"I'd had glandular fever for three months, I was out of shape and heavy."

"But I got myself back on track, literally, and pulled together some quick times, running a new personal best over the 1500m."

"Things felt really natural early on, despite being such a contrast from the setup back home. The NCAA system is very different - you're a full time student but also expected to go and train."

"It's great because you have a whole team who's there to support each other and there's really no where else that has that depth and structure."

"But things... things can change quickly."

A long way from home

"After about a year and a half I got injured and things became really difficult."

"I got really home sick, I wasn't running well at all and it was just a time that... that I felt alone."

"It made me realise, particularly as an international student, that you really do have to look after yourself."

"My family and friends mean so much to me, but when you're that far away you can't just 'go home'."

"It hit me hard that I couldn't see my family whenever I wanted."

"This period was one of the toughest of my life, but I learnt a lot from it. The things I gained from that adversity have paid for themselves ten times over."

"Whenever I go home, it's great to catch up with all my mates and close friends. But the friends I've made over here in San Fransisco, and across America, it's crazy."

"I've made friends for life and they are people who really helped during the tough times."

Challenges on moving away from home

Reflecting on his journey to date, I ask Hugh to consider and provide his three biggest challenges on moving away from the place he loves so much.

1. A change of place and pace

"I love Tassie - I think we all know Tasmania is the best place on Earth. Everything just moves a little bit slower, life is good."

"Over here however, things move at a rapid pace and you have to keep up. Especially living within the city itself and managing the college environment, things change rapidly and at times it was tough to adjust."

2. The change of coach and system

"America and the NCAA is a complex system."

"I'd had the same coach from the age of ten, all the way up until I left home at nineteen. Despite our achievements and relationship, we were and still are really good mates. I had absolute faith in Jy and what we'd done."

"When I moved, I had to place that same trust in someone I'd only ever talked to over the phone and had never met. I had to adapt to a new training setup and structure, but there was more than that through having to put my faith in someone else."

"You're away from home, you're away from your family, you're away from your friends."

"There are times when you really do have to look out for yourself, particularly as an international student."

"But, you do get support - through the college or through the friends you make over there. This really helped me during some tough times and something I value to this day."

3. Finding a balance

"When you move away to the college system, it's tough to find a balance initially."

"Everything is new and exciting, and a lot of people either sink themselves into training or into the social aspects - at the expense of one or the other, as opposed to balancing both."

"I struggled initially to find the balance between life, and school, and sport. This was particularly prominent when I was injured, which can also happen when you change your setup."

"I don't have any regrets about my journey to date, but if I did have one, it was probably not listening to my body and coach a bit more."

"I feel really strongly about this more, putting faith and belief in how you're feeling and the support team around you - trusting them and trusting yourself."

"The people you surround yourself with are also really crucial to helping you stay grounded and to keep that balance that's important."

Tips for Tassie Athlete

There's really no way to overcome adversity and life lessons except in your own individual way, something that Hugh is intimately familiar with.

However in reflecting on the challenges he's grappled with since moving away from home, there's also some wisdom for those thinking about or who have perhaps just made the move away from home.

1. Find and talk to other people

"Before I moved over, I talked a lot to Ryan Foster - who'd moved from Tassie to the USA to pursue a similar dream."

"It just helped get me ready for what was to come and what to expect. Finding and having this mentor, both before, during and after moving, was really invaluable."

2. Embrace the opportunity

"Everyone who moves away from home internationally - quite often it's once in a lifetime."

"It's such a big decision to make, and takes a lot of time and reflection, but it's also one that not everyone in life gets."

"Which ever way you decide, it's also one you may never get again - so it's important to soak up every opportunity that presents itself and to make the most of the experience overall."

3. Be ready, but be grateful no matter what happens

"A lot of people might look at me coming over here, and maybe think I didn't reach my potential."

"There are so many factors that contribute to that perception, but for me, the experience, maturity and life lessons I've got having made the decision have been incredible."

"Not many teenagers get a fully paid and supported scholarship out of their time at school or university."

"I'm truly grateful for the times I've had, and continue to have, over here in San Fransisco and constantly appreciate the journey I've had."

Closing reflections

Andy and I have been home for two months now, and having wrapped up another year in the big city, Hugh's back home for a little bit.

He's just returned from a jog around Knocklofty, and it's the first opportunity we've had since the trip to reflect on the times we've had, but also debrief on the discussion from the car all those months ago.

Sitting beside his beloved piano, it's great to see Hugh again and his final thoughts on moving away from Tasmania.

"Particularly in running, but also in life, everyone goes through changes."

"This is both with head and body, we're in a state of constant flux and improvement and that's something special."

"I think, really, everyone moves away from something they hold significant at some stage in life - whether thats their home, family or friends."

"But I think that embracing this as a part of life, and that whether you stay, or move to the mainland, or move overseas - you're not going to miss out on growing as a person and the changes life brings."

"My family and friends mean the world to me, and I do miss them."

"But when they come to visit, it's some of the best times being able to show them around the place I live, share the things I do and the experiences I have."

"Inversely, when I come home also, it's great to reconnect with everyone and hear their own adventures."

"Moving away from Tasmania has had it's tough times, but I constantly reflect on it and the positive experiences and richness it has brought to my life."

"It's also great now to be able to lend a hand to Tassie Athletes going through the same thing, but still continue and embrace my own journey."

Unable to contain himself any further, I hit pause on the camera as Hugh jumps on the piano stool and plays away with ridiculous talent.

Despite being somewhat of a distant memory now, I consider myself lucky to have spent time hearing about his life and story since heading to America - both as a friend but also with my Tassie Athlete hat on.

If nothing else, my rekindled love for reading, succulents and Bon Iver are aspects that can be attributed to my time with Hugh.

Mate - thank you for taking the time to chat and as always I'm looking forward to our next catch up when you're home.

- Dominic

RETURN TO ATHLETES

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