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UK distance runner credits athletics, coaches with keeping him on path to beat adversity

Special to KyForward


University of Kentucky social work senior and distance runner Josh Nadzam is no stranger to adversity.


Raised by a single mother battling a chronic mental illness, Nadzam credits athletics and great coaches with keeping him out of trouble as a child.


Senior year in high school, Nadzam lost his best friend in a car accident, coming back from Spring Break at the beach. The small community of Monaca, Pa. was devastated and so was the town’s premier athlete.


After graduation, Nadzam was looking for a way out of a self-described dysfunctional single-parent home in the projects outside of Pittsburgh.


While sports had always provided strong and steady support for the basketball and football player, at the end of Nadzam’s high school tenure, he found his true path sophomore year on the track. And that path has changed his life.


Running is a year-round sport for athletes like UK social work senior Josh Nadzam. “You really just have to believe in yourself and have confidence,” Nadzam said. “Don’t give in. Always keep your eyes focused and stay committed. One more lap. One more mile.”


“In high school, when we’d run the mile, I never really got tired,” he explained. “Some of my friends told the new track coach about it, and that kind of got me into the sport.”


When Nadzam began looking at colleges, he was good, but not that good.


“I didn’t get a lot of recruiting from big schools because my times weren’t that great,” he said. “I’d had limited training but still did pretty well in my local area, so I wanted to try a larger school far away.”


Nadzam contacted coaches at Division I schools, including UK, by email. “UK gave me a chance when no one else would,” said Nadzam, who walked on for the Wildcats as a 4:21 miler.


“He [Coach Weber] has had national champions, SEC champions, Olympians,” Nadzam said, “so for him to give an opportunity as just a no-name walk-on — that meant the world to me.”


Nadzam went on to earn a partial scholarship, become a Southeastern Conference point-scorer and an SEC Academic Honor Roll member, all while lowering his time in the mile to 4:05.


“My coaches have really helped me to succeed,” Nadzam said humbly. “I am surrounded by great mentors and advisers.”


Nadzam also found a nonathletic passion in UK’s College of Social Work. A regular volunteer for God’s Pantry, Ronald McDonald House, Habitat for Humanity, Hope Center, Catholic Action Center and a vacation Bible school, Nadzam is a two-time CATSPY recipient as UK’s male Service Award honoree.


Nadzam was appointed to the SEC Community Service team for the second year in a row after conducting a shoe drive at UK last spring in conjunction with Soles for Souls, a nonprofit organization that helps distribute all types of shoes to underprivileged countries around the world. Nadzam and teammate Luis Orta were able to collect 2,000 pairs of shoes over the course of a month.


Social work and track have a lot in common for Nadzam. “Running is not a pretty sport, and social work isn’t a pretty profession,” he said. “They are both passions that require dedication and a realization of the intrinsic value of what you’re doing.”


Last year, Nadzam received the Wilma Rudolph Student Athlete Achievement Award, an honor presented annually to student-athletes who have overcome adversity and tragedy.


“The Wilma Rudolph award was really a moment of triumph and clarity,” said Nadzam. “I can tell my story now. I still have problems, but now I am beyond happy.”


And so the quiet and hard-working competitor continues in the trenches this fall, keeping up his rigorous pace — a pace most of us would find impossible to maintain — finishing his homework on buses and in airports and still finding time to keep in touch with family back home.


Running is a year-round sport, starting with cross country and continuing with indoor and then outdoor track —all in the midst of social work practicums, tests and nonprofit work.


“You really just have to believe in yourself and have confidence,” Nadzam said. “Don’t give in. Always keep your eyes focused and stay committed. One more lap. One more mile.”


Nadzam knows that poverty can wear you down. He understands struggle and continues to talk to his mother every couple of days.


“Every time I get an award, it’s a reflection on her and my grandmother,” Nadzam said. “They define selfless love. My mom raised me as a single mom with a disease and did everything she could.”


With one season of cross country eligibility remaining, Nadzam plans to begin work next fall on a master’s degree in social work.


Thanks to Erin Holaday Ziegler, UKPR. Photos from UK Athletics.

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