Marysville’s Haley Nemra is an unlikely Olympian

Haley Nemra understands that she is fortunate to be an Olympian.

And not in the “I’m-so-lucky-all-this-hard-work-paid-off-and-now-I-made-it” kind of way. Rather, Nemra, a Marysville-Pilchuck high school graduate, realizes that a pretty unusual set of circumstances had to happen for her to be representing the Marshall Islands in London when the 2012 Summer Olympics kick off with tonight’s opening ceremonies.

You see, Nemra wouldn’t be running the 800 in her second Olympics if not for the Marshall Islands, her father Korap’s native country and a place she had never been to prior to 2010. The country encouraged her to become a citizen in 2007.

For that matter, Nemra wouldn’t have become an Olympian if the Marshall Islands, a tiny country located in the Pacific, roughly midway between Hawaii and Australia, hadn’t gained its independence in 1986 and two decades later formed a National Olympic Committee. Nemra also wouldn’t be in London if, after battling an Achilles injury for almost all of her college career at the University of San Francisco, she wasn’t finally getting healthy at just the right time.

And finally, Nemra wouldn’t be running in Olympics again if not for the fact that every National Olympic Committee is allowed to send one male and one female athlete in track and field to compete regardless of whether or not those athletes meet the qualifying times, which the 22-year-old Nemra does not.

If in 2008, an 18-year-old, fresh-out-of-high-school Nemra was one of the most unlikely Olympians in Beijing, well then certainly in London she will be an equally unlikely two-time Olympian.

So yeah, Nemra will, for the second time in her young life, soak in the excitement of the opening ceremony. She will look on in awe while running next to the world’s best athletes while trying to avoid being intimidated. And she will try to improve upon her 2008 performance, which saw her finish seventh in her heat with a disappointing time.

Most of all, Nemra plans on using her good fortune as a platform to give back to the country and the region of the world that have allowed her to go from typical American high school and college athlete to Olympian.

“I really want to try to give back to the Marshall Islands and help out with their athletics program,” Nemra said in a phone interview from England.

Because of the Achilles injury that first crept up during Nemra’s freshman year at USF, and eventually required surgery in 2010, she is heading into these Olympics knowing that her Aug. 8 preliminary heat could be the final competitive race of her life. She certainly won’t rule out running for the Marshall Islands again, be it in the Olympics, the Micronesian Games or the Oceania Championships — two other competitions in which she has competed — but Nemra would also be at peace if this ends up being it for her running career.

Either way, whether she competes again or not, Nemra’s more immediate future will likely including spending some time helping establish better athletic programs in the Marshall Islands, particularly for girls. It’s no coincidence that Nemra, and many of the other athletes her country sent to Beijing and now London, didn’t grow up in the country they were representing. Facilities, programs, and general interest all still need to develop for the Marshall Islands to be more competitive in sports.

Nemra believes she can help change that. She wants to give back to the country that gave her this unique Olympics opportunity and help inspire future Marshall Islands Olympians, especially young girls who might not otherwise pursue athletic endeavors.

“We’ve talked about me helping with workshops and stuff,” Nemra said of the Marshall Islands Olympic Committee. “They have mentioned me actually living there for a while to help get the athletics, especially the women’s, going a little more in the schools and everything, just to progress more. There still a lot of development work that needs to be done, and I have enough experience training in the U.S. that I think I could help.”

With injuries limiting Nemra throughout her college career, she estimates that she is basically running at the same level she was when she enrolled at USF just after the 2008 Olympics. As a result, her expectations are realistic.

That doesn’t mean, however, that she doesn’t have goals. Yes, Nemra will be focused on soaking in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a second time, but she would like to have a better showing than in 2008 when she let her adrenaline get the best of her and went out too fast, causing her to fade and not even match her best times from high school.

“This time around, of course I want to enjoy the experience again, but also I really would love to better my time,” she said. “Especially because this could be the ending of my athletics career.”

And again, if this is the end, Nemra is ready to give back to the sport that has allowed her to be an Olympian, twice, even if by her own admission, she isn’t at the same level as most of her competition. It also allowed her to travel the world, meet relatives and embrace a country of which she previously had little knowledge. A glance at her competition schedule over the past five years provides a geography lesson on the Oceania region of the world (quick, raise your hand if you know where Palau or New Caledonia are).

“Athletics have become a lot of my life,” she said. “It’s been amazing, and I feel like this opportunity, there’s some reason behind it, so that’s why I’m so excited to come back again and represent the Marshall Islands.

“I feel like there’s another reason behind me going. With the Marshall Islands and Oceania becoming kind of a family in my time competing for them, and there is still so much development that is still needed, so now I feel like I’ll be able to help do that.”

Her next few weeks are planned out. Nemra runs Aug. 8, takes in the Olympic experience before and after, then spends a little time traveling Europe before returning home to see friends and family in Marysville. From there, Nemra isn’t sure what’s next, but for someone who has lived the whirlwind life she has since 2008, uncertainty is nothing new.

Whatever Nemra ends up doing past the 2012 Olympics — whether it’s spending time in the Marshall Islands helping grow her sport or trying to continue her running career if her health allows it — whatever is next, her history tells us that it will certainly be interesting.

“I don’t know what the plan is with her, you never know,” her mother, Mary, said with a laugh. “I never know what her next adventure is going to be.”

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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