By Craig Pearson
TERRE HAUTE — Nick Dason’s schedule at West Point is as rigorous as he expected … and he’s loving every minute.
Before breakfast each day at 6:45 a.m., Dason joins his triathlon teammates — triathlon is a club sport at the U.S. Military Academy — for practice at 5:30 a.m.
Then after a full slate of classes — 18 credit hours, the least he’s taken in four years — the team convenes for more practice at 4 p.m. and goes until 6:30. After a less formal dinner, Dason works to maintain his dean’s list studying habits. His major is American politics and Dason has a minor in systems engineering.
The Terre Haute North High School alumnus welcomes the demanding routine when he compares it to the 10 months he spent in one of the most volatile cities in Iraq.
Last year, Dason met up with the 101st Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell, Ky., in Ramadi, the capital of the Anbar province.
On Friday, 27 people died in Ramadi when a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with TNT and chlorine gas into a police check point.
Dason contributed to more than 150 combat missions as a machine gunner with the infantry.
“We were really fighting the fight,” Dason said. “It’s a very volatile region. It’s tough. We lost some good guys and had a lot of guys get hurt.”
It was quite a learning experience, to say the least.
“We were trying to make the city more secure. It’s a totally different world. You realize how great America is,” Dason said.
“Some people get down when they’re here [at West Point] because everything that’s required of you is so high stress. The fact I’m back at school now, getting ready to graduate from a premier institution … It could always be worse. I could be in Iraq.”
In addition to the challenges of battle, Dason took on the challenge of staying in good shape. Accustomed to working out nonstop since his high school days at North when he went from cross country to swimming to track, Dason found ways to work out.
“We weren’t allowed to run outside because of mortar threats. We had a gym with a treadmill that didn’t work half the time, but there was an elliptical machine and a stationary bike,” Dason said.
He wasn’t just staying in shape for triathlons.
“I had to stay in shape for missions,” he explained. “I’m 165 pounds, but carrying all my gear, I’m over 300 pounds.”
Dason had already given up his spot on the Army varsity swim team before heading to Iraq and had planned to pursue triathlons, which he first competed during high school in the Terre Haute Triathlon.
“I was always more of a runner in high school,” said Dason, who was a member of North’s cross country team that ended a long drought of state-finals appearances and took 10th in 2001.
He returned from Iraq in November and tried out for the triathlon team in January.
“That was one of the toughest things,” he said, “trying to stay in shape.”
The 24-year-old is feeling good about his fitness now with two weeks before the collegiate nationals. Dason finished third overall last weekend in the Lone Star Triathlon at Galveston, Texas, and was the top finisher among 20- to 24-year-olds. He finished the Quarter Ironman — a 0.6-mile swim, 28-mile bike ride and 6.5-mile run — in 2:07:04.
His parents, North teachers Mike and Patti Dason, went to Orlando, Fla., to see Nick win the Wildman Triathlon on March 18. They don’t plan on missing any races, especially considering Nick’s schedule doesn’t allow him much time to get back to Terre Haute.
“That’s why we go. I’m going to miss a [Patriots girls] track meet this spring,” said Mike, North’s longtime girls track coach. “We’re going to Tuscaloosa, [Ala.] for nationals.”
Nick and his teammates also enjoy the chance to take a weekend away from New York.
“You feel like a professional athlete for a weekend,” he said. “Everything is paid for by old [West Point] graduates.”
Plus, you can’t beat the competition; even a good rivalry exists for he and his fellow cadets. The West Point team competed against Navy at the Lone Star Triathlon. Two Navy midshipmen finished ahead of Dason.
The collegiate nationals triathlon is April 21 and is priority No. 1 for Dason and his teammates. Two more weeks of solid training — fitting in 10-12 hours between studying and five hours of sleep per night — before tapering off before the nationals.
Does Dason imagine himself competing in Hawaii in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship?
“Maybe eventually, not anytime soon,” he said. “The commitment level for that is much higher. You’re training 20 hours a week to jump up to that distance [2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run].”
For now, Dason is focused on his career. He’ll graduate in December from West Point. Then he has a five-year commitment to fulfill to the Army. He hopes to enter aviation training.
“I really like the Army,” he said. “I could see myself making a career out of it, but I’m not going to overcommit myself. My long-term goals are to graduate, continue to race triathlon, and if I have an opportunity to go to next level, I’m going to do it.”