Nick Mayhugh sat in his room watching YouTube videos of elite sprinters late at night a year and a half ago, studying their techniques — from getting into the blocks to firing out of them on the start.
The former Division I soccer player was trying to learn an entirely new sport: track and field.
Mayhugh, who starred on the U.S. Para 7-A-Side Soccer team, was attempting to qualify for the Paralympics that kick off Tuesday morning in Tokyo. Soccer isn’t on the program in Japan, and Mayhugh — who wanted a shot at competing in the Games — decided to put his effort into making the U.S. Paralympic track team.
The 25-year-old’s challenge was he had to master a whole new sport in a year and qualify at the U.S. trials in Minneapolis, Minnesota in June.
The problem? The Manassas, Virginia, native hadn’t run track and field since middle school in the late-2000’s. Even that experience didn’t really help Mayhugh’s goal since he last used the sport to condition for soccer, running the 800-meter and the mile.
He was setting out to qualify for the Paralympics in the 100 and 200-meter dashes — sprints instead of the endurance-style events needed in soccer. Mayhugh had to learn how to explode energy, not conserve it.
“When I tell you I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it,” Mayhugh recalled telling U.S. Paralympic track coach Joaquim Cruz. “So you let me know the records, you let me know the times I need to hit, and I’ll get there.”
A hard worker
Mayhugh was born with a mild form of Cerebral Palsy, a motor disability that affects a person’s ability to move. For Mayhugh, it’s a numbness on the left side of his body.
The disability didn’t stop Mayhugh from playing soccer as a child. He played in D.C. United’s Soccer Academy for two years before a four-year D-I career at Radford, helping the Highlanders to two Big South titles and two NCAA tournament appearances.
Bryheem Hancock, who coached Mayhugh during his senior year at Radford, called him “resilient” and “driven.”
“He truly is a poster child for that word [resilient],” Hancock said of Mayhugh.
“I would say that he was doing more than guys in the group at times, putting in extra work, getting himself in the best shape possible,” Hancock said. “Each day at training and in the matches he did well because of all the work he put in.”
Mayhugh played 28 games in his Radford career, started 10, and scored one goal.
Mayhugh joined the U.S. Para 7-A-Side National Team during his junior year at Radford and quickly became a star for the Red, White and Blue.
He’s scored 34 goals in 25 games with the national team, including an eight-goal performance at the 2019 Lima Para Pan American Games, leading the team to its first bronze medal.
After the tournament, Mayhugh decided to go full steam ahead with track and field.
‘I felt so unathletic’
Trainer Justin Kavanaugh has worked with Olympians, NFL players and elite track athletes, so when Mayhugh approached him about transitioning to running, he saw something in the former soccer star.
The mindset — Mayhugh’s determination and will to be successful — struck Kavanaugh right off the bat. And since Mayhugh had no experience on the track, there would be no bad habits to unlearn.
They started from the beginning, with Mayhugh learning the “A’s, B’s and C’s” of sprinting, from learning how to set up blocks to allowing himself to run freely.
“With Nick, nothing made sense,” Kavanaugh said, “so everything made sense.”
“This is the first time in my career that I’ve been completely clueless as to what he’s telling me to do,” Mayhugh said. “I felt so unathletic.”
Kavanaugh said he introduced track fundamentals in layers, attempting to squeeze 10 years of track experience into a year — a year that eventually turned into two due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mayhugh was raw in the beginning, but onlookers could see the potential. Jason Rogers, a three-time Olympian who represented St. Kitts and Nevis in Tokyo, said the first time he saw Mayhugh run, he knew he could be good — he just needed help.
“I was like ‘whoa,’ in terms of he didn’t look that good, but he was still running kind of fast,” Rogers said. “He was running so bad, but he’s still so good, so imagine if he got the right hands on him.”
Kavanaugh first showed Mayhugh the wrong way to stand in the blocks, so he’d know what it felt like. Then, he showed him the right way.
When Mayhugh did it correctly the first time, he turned to Rogers and told him it was an uncomfortable feeling.
“The blocks aren’t supposed to feel uncomfortable, so when the starter says go, you just want to get out as quick as possible,” Rogers said.
Kavanaugh said he believes that Mayhugh’s drive to succeed in soccer helped him in the transition to sprinting.
“That actual mental fortitude that he had in other sports is what’s actually allowed him to be successful right now,” Kavanaugh said. “If it weren’t for that success he’s had historically, I doubt that he would have been able to do it this quickly.”
Mayhugh believes that he’s become a sprinter with the year and a half of training.
“Last year, I was a soccer athlete trying to run track,” Mayhugh said. “With this extra year, I turned into a new beast and turned into a track athlete. There’s no stopping me.”
World record holder
Before he started training every day, Mayhugh looked up the world record times for the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash.
He took those times and put them all over his apartment in North Carolina, from his bathroom mirror to the kitchen. Mayhugh wanted to be motivated each time he entered a new room, reminding him of the goal.
At the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, California, people would ask Mayhugh what he was working toward. He’d respond by telling them his goal of breaking the world records in the events. Most folks responded with a laugh.
That just fed Mayhugh’s underdog mentality.
“They didn’t didn’t understand what I was willing to do,” Mayhugh said. “I’ve been willing to take myself to the place that people have never been.”
Mayhugh’s trials debut turned a lot of heads after he broke the world record in the 100-meter dash and the American record in the 200-meter dash.
The improvement didn’t surprise Kavanaugh.
“His first few races, he was so far off the mark from even qualifying, let alone doing what he did in trials,” Kavanaugh said. “To watch what he’s done already is already a success.”
Now Mayhugh is in Tokyo, set to run the 100-, 200-, and 400-meter races as well as the 4x100-meter relay.
Around the training center, some would poke fun at Mayhugh, calling him “the soccer kid,” he said. He hopes to change that label after his performance in Tokyo.
“I’m a nobody in the track world,” Mayhugh said. “I want to come home and everybody knows that when they say Nick Mayhugh, they’re gonna be like, ‘Oh, that’s the kid that came home with four gold medals.’”