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John Nunn is a tough cookie who walks the walk

John Nunn is the lone U.S. entrant in grueling 50K race walk. His medal chances are slim, but a non-athletic pursuit, a cookie company founded with (and named for) his daughter, Ella, is full speed ahead.

July 09, 2012|By Kevin Baxter
  • John Nunn stretches after a training session at Lake Miramar.
John Nunn stretches after a training session at Lake Miramar. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

BONSALL, Calif. — America's best race walker is standing in the corner of his kitchen kneading three bags of buttered microwave popcorn into a lumpy mound of yellow dough already thick with malted milk balls, peanut butter and toffee.

But that's not the main part of this cookie recipe — or any of the others John Nunn has thrown together. Because standing beside him is the secret ingredient he says makes his unusual concoctions work: his ponytailed 8-year-old daughter, Ella.

"She taste-tests it. She runs the show," Nunn says. "If Ella says no, that's the end of the cookie."

She recently nixed a bacon-flavored cookie that tasted just as bad as it sounds. But the popcorn-and-chocolate treats, a marshmallow-and-graham-cracker cookie and a butterscotch-coconut blend all made the cut.

Nunn will be the only athlete representing the United States in the 50-kilometer race walk at this summer's London Games after winning a stirring duel with Tim Seaman in January's Olympic trials. That in itself is an achievement worthy of its own cookie, given Nunn's circuitous two-decade-long journey from high school distance runner to two-time Olympian and rising cookie entrepreneur.

Along the way he served a Mormon mission in Las Vegas, got married, joined the Army, got divorced, was promoted to staff sergeant, learned to cook by working part time as a pantry chef at a San Diego diner and moved with Ella into a garage-sized guest house on a cousin's ranch in the hills above Oceanside.

Race walking demands the same pain, sacrifice and dedication as long-distance running, but it comes with few of the benefits since the sport, popular in Eastern Europe and parts of Latin America, is largely maligned and misunderstood in the U.S. And if that's not bad enough, because competitors must maintain contact with the ground at all time, their gait looks off-balance and comical, with a circular hip rotation and an exaggerated arm swing that is frequently ridiculed.

Until he perfected that technique, Nunn was among those who laughed the loudest.

"I thought it was ridiculous," says Nunn, whose mother and father were avid race walkers in Colorado. "I couldn't do the form. I didn't know what it was. And it was painful."

Turned out he was good at it, though. So after Nunn peaked as a runner in high school, where he ran the mile in 4 minutes 34 seconds, his father talked him into enrolling at Wisconsin Parkside, one of the few colleges where race walking is practiced.

A couple of years later, he made his first U.S. national team, competing in the Junior Pan American Games in Cuba.

"It was amazing," he remembers. "You get these uniforms, you get all this cool stuff. I was like, 'I want to make the Olympic team.'"

That took seven more years, with Nunn finishing second in the U.S. trials to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games, where he placed 26th in the 20-kilometer event.

The next four years were a struggle, though, with Nunn narrowly missing out on the 2008 Beijing Games while dealing with the acrimonious breakup of his marriage.

"That was a hard time for him," says Enrique Pena, a former Colombian race walker who has coached Nunn for nearly a dozen years. There were times, Pena remembers, when Nunn would simply stop in the middle of a workout and sit down in the middle of the road, exhausted physically and mentally.

"The race walker, the most important thing really is a very strong head," Pena says. "If you're weak in your head, you are not going to do well."

Looking back, Nunn, 34, considers the episode a defining moment — not just in his race walking career but in his life. Because while the divorce was proceeding, Nunn often busied himself in the kitchen, something he continued even after his ex-wife remarried and relocated to Washington state, leaving Ella to spend the school year with her father.

The girl was 3 then, too young to be around a hot stove. So the two turned to baking, first with breads and cakes and eventually moving on to cookies, where they soon began blazing their own trail.

"All the recipes were horrible," Nunn says. "So I just started messing with different stuff. And people started liking them."

Over the next two years, Nunn estimates, he gave out more than 1,200 cookies, mostly to friends, and the feedback was all positive. So he started passing them out to strangers, hoping for unbiased opinions. When those came back positive as well, "Ella's Cookie Co: Decadent Cookies by Daddy and Daughter" was born.

"He makes the best cookies in the world," says Swedish race walker Andreas Gustafsson, who pushed his training partner into selling boxes of cookies on the Internet (they're available at ellascookieco.com). "The recipe he has and the way he makes them, nobody beats them. They're a little more dense, not so airy like regular cookies. It just tastes gourmet."

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