Daniel Nehnevaj first tried racewalking after three teammates became All Americans in that event 2018 NAIA track and field championships.
“If you can’t beat them, join them,” Nehnevaj joked.
Now Nehnevaj is beating almost every other racewalker in the nation. The former Columbia River and Clark College distance runner placed second in the 20-kilometer racewalk at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month in Eugene, Ore.
While the top three Trials finishers typically qualify for the Olympics, Nehnevaj won’t compete in Tokyo. As someone who just began competing in national-level events within the past year, he hasn’t achieved a high enough world ranking or met the Olympic qualifying standard.
Nehnevaj first got on the sport’s national radar in April when he won the 20K at the Pac Am Cup Trials in Philadelphia. Nehnevaj’s quick ascension in the sport has thrilled his colleagues at West Virginia Tech, where he helps coach track and field while pursuing a degree in Chemical Engineering.
“To many in the US Race Walking Community around the country, this might be considered a major upset!,” the West Virginia Tech track team wrote on Facebook. “But, to those of us close to the Golden Bear Program, there was only marginal surprise, as Dan’s rapid ascension has been brewing.”
Now Nehnevaj has his eyes on representing the U.S. at major events after the Olympics. He’s targeting the U.S. Indoor Track and Field Championships in February and the World Athletics Championships next summer in Eugene.
Nehnevaj was an accomplished distance runner in high school and at Clark College, where he placed fifth in the 10,000 meters at the 2017 Northwest Athletic Conference Championships. At W.V. Tech, he qualified for the NAIA indoor nationals in the 5,000 meters but had a poor race, finishing last out of 16 runners.
Seeing three racewalking teammates succeed sparked his curiosity. Back home in the summer of 2018, Nehnevaj began to learn the technique with the Portland-based club Racewalk Northwest.
At its core, engineering is about how things work. Nehnevaj used an engineer’s mindset to study how to move his body the most efficiently while racewalking, where one foot must always be in touch with the ground.
Nehnevaj had a runner’s aerobic conditioning, but there were still different muscles to train.
“The first time I tried racewalking my shins were on so much fire,” Nehnevaj said.
But he stuck with it. By March of 2019, Nehnevaj was among the top racewalkers at W.V. Tech, earning sixth place at the NAIA Indoor Nationals. One year later, he won the 3,000 meters at that same meet, clocking 12 minutes, 9 seconds.
During the COVID-19 shutdown, Nehnevaj geared his training toward the longer 20K distance.
“A 3K felt incredibly short,” Nehnevaj said. “I felt like I had more to give.”
Just how much was on display at the Olympic Trials. On a warm morning on June 26, Nehnevaj moved up to second place within 3,000 meters and stayed there the rest of the way.
His finishing time of 1:31:59 was just over a minute behind winner Nick Christie, who despite also not reaching the Olympic standard of 1:21 will be among the 60 racewalkers in Tokyo due to his world ranking.
Perhaps the Olympics will be in Nehnevaj’s future. Whether it is or not, he is eager to see how far racewalking can take him.
“Anything that’s worthwhile takes time,” he said. “The guy who won the Olympic Trials, it took him over eight years to get to his goal.”