Freshman Nick DeRay: Unlikely NCAA Champion
Nick DeRay (second from left) with DMR teammates Robert Domanic, Sean Tobin and Craig Engels
March 24, 2017

By Dylan Edwards,

The path to a national championship does not normally involve a pit stop in an operating room for a heart operation. For Ole Miss freshman Nick DeRay, that was how his first year in Oxford played out.

When DeRay made the decision to walk on at Ole Miss, neither scenario was on his radar. He was looking for a school to give him a chance to compete while he had no health concerns on his mind.

“I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I started emailing coaches,” DeRay said. “(Ole Miss sprints) Coach (Anthony) Acklin answered.”

Before he could start running for the Rebels, the Colorado Springs native had a problem. During his first physical on campus, it was found that his heart had a defect that caused a rapid, irregular heartbeat with physical exertion. Obviously, that’s a problem for a sprinter. 

“It came out of nowhere,” DeRay said. “I thought it was going to be a problem. I didn’t know if they were going to let me run.”

Luckily, the issue was not in a lethal location. However, it could still cause problems for him when his heart would rapidly speed up its beating.

“It was kind of scary. One time at practice, my heart started beating really fast,” DeRay said. “For a while, I didn’t like running when out of nowhere it started beating really fast.”

While not fatal, it’s still not ideal for a sprinter to have an irregular heartbeat to that degree. So in December, DeRay had a catheter ablation to fix the issue. The peculiar thing about this operation is that it was performed while he was awake.

“They had two catheters in my leg,” DeRay said. “I could look over and see an X-ray of them. I felt when they burned which was super weird.”

Two weeks later, the Ole Miss freshman was as good as new and back running again. Good thing too, because he was presented with a great opportunity.

Ole Miss’ distance medley relay team had three of the four legs filled out with top-tier distance runners in Sean Tobin, Robert Domanic and Craig Engels. However, the 400-meter leg was open. As a sprinter, DeRay was given an opportunity to compete for a chance to run. That’s what he wanted when he came to Oxford.

“I showed up, and I figured if I worked hard, I’d get chances to run,” DeRay said. “That ended up happening.”

DeRay’s biggest opportunity came in the Arkansas Invitational in late January, just over a month after his heart operation. He was presented with the chance to put his name on the 400-meter section of the DMR. He made the most of it.

“At the Arkansas meet, the coaches said if I ran well there, I get to stay on for the rest of the season,” DeRay said. “I was really nervous then. I did the best there than anywhere else. Everyone was going to get a shot at it. I did pretty well the first time.”

Earning the spot did not ease DeRay’s nerves, however. The other three upperclassmen members of the DMR won the indoor SEC title and placed third in the nation the year prior. The expectations were set high, which means DeRay felt the weight of not wanting to let his teammates down.

“The nerves got to you every once in a while, because you become the leg that needs to hold it together and not destroy it,” DeRay said. “It’s really stressful.”

It all worked out for the DMR team. They once again claimed the SEC title. This year, though, they followed it up by claiming the national championship, Ole Miss’ first ever NCAA title in a relay event. DeRay had gone from unsure of his running future after a physical in August to NCAA Champion.

“It was good, obviously,” DeRay said. “I would have liked to do a lot better, but it was cool to be a part of it. They did really well.”






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