Friday, March 23, 2012

Olimpia Nowak: The Courage to Hope

Many times in my coaching career I have looked up at a scoreboard waiting for the final results from a multi events competition to post. Last weekend in Boise, Idaho at the 2012 Indoor NCAA Championships was no exception. UNI senior, Olimpia Nowak was in a dogfight for a coveted First Team All-America title. I have looked up at a lot of scoreboards in my career, but I don’t ever recall hoping that hard for an athlete.  

A Little Background
When I started coaching at UNI on October 1st, 2009, I met a terrific student athlete named Olimpia. A citizen of Poland, she was coming off a surgery to correct an injury to her foot. It was easy to identify her as an elite athlete, capable of becoming a First-Team NCAA All-American (top eight) in both the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon. As not only the head coach, but also the multi events coach, I immediately went to work training her.
Never one to complain, Olimpia quietly worked hard at everything she did. She has an amazing work ethic I assume was developed in Poland, long before she ever arrived at UNI. So you can imagine my surprise when she said to me: “Coach, I appreciate that you think I can be great, but I am afraid you think I am better than I really am.” It took me awhile, but I eventually understand why she felt that way. 

Olimpia (far right) as a teenage phenom in Poland
When Olimpia was 16 years old, she was one of the most promising athletes in Poland. She was training at a high level and earmarked for greatness. She dreamed of being in the Olympics. Unfortunately, her body started to break down. An accomplished long jumper and high jumper, Olimpia pounded her feet and legs in practice. This constant pounding is speculated to have lead to her injuries. One injury became two, two became three; one disappointment followed another. After years of injuries and disappointments, Olimpia was afraid to hope.

First time in America
Olimpia arrived in Cedar Falls, IA in January of 2008. She had never been to the USA before and her English was poor. She struggled academically in that first term, but only two weeks into the semester Olimpia established a new UNI school record in the pentathlon. That record would be one of the last bright moments for her first season as a Panther. Her chronic foot injury worsened and after the outdoor season it was determined she needed surgery. Olimpia red-shirted the 2010 seasons as she rehabbed her foot. She told me she withdrew emotionally from the track and field program that year, resolved to focus on her academics instead of athletics. Her English had improved significantly by her 2nd year and she was becoming a committed student. She was focusing on her future, but in her mind, her track and field career was over.
Her UNI Career
In her career at UNI, Olimpia has re-injured her foot four or five times, causing frustration and extreme discouragement. Literally every time she takes a jump in a track meet we run the risk of a season ending injury. We turned our focus instead to the running events and she improved at an amazing rate. As she became healthier, her frustration turned to joy. Her smile returned and she became reconnected with her team. In 2011 she was a member of the MVC champion 4x4 squad and one of the top combination hurdlers in the country, qualifying for the first round of the NCAA Outdoor Championships in both events in addition to the heptathlon. I am fully confident she will graduate as the school record holder in the pentathlon, heptathlon, 60m, 100m and 400m hurdle events. 

By 2012, her final collegiate season, Olimpia had accomplished far more than most. She is now an honor student with her sights set on graduate school. The athlete I coach today is very different from the one I met in 2009. Between the pentathlon and heptathlon, she has been to the NCAA Championships four times. Still, that First Team All-America honor had eluded her. But she had never looked better. She was faster and healthier than she had ever been as a Panther. She finally broke her 2008 school record in the pentathlon at the 2012 MVC Championships. Two weeks ago, there was finally hope in the eyes of Olimpia Nowak heading into the NCAA Indoor Championships in Boise, ID.

The 2012 Indoor NCAA Championships

First event: 60m Hurdles. The UNI school record holder had established herself as one of the top 60m hurdlers in the country in 2012. As expected, she ran a fantastic race in Boise to start out the competition in 4th place.

Second event: High Jump. She had been looking better and better in practice. The bar kept going up and she kept making it. In fact, the more she jumped the better she looked. At 5’7” she had her first miss. Then her second. She dug down on the third attempt and looked fantastic, making it easily. I was ecstatic but she didn’t celebrate. My big smile was met with a serious face and tears welling up in her eyes. I had seen that look too many times over the past three years. “I did it again” she said.
“Your foot?” I asked.
She knodded. “I needed to make that bar… I was too aggressive.”
“Do you need to stop?” I asked.
“This is my last indoor meet. I am going to finish.” The foot and ankle began swelling immediately. Our athletic trainer, Erik Caouch, gave her Ibuprofen.

Third event: Shot Put. She figured out quickly in warm-ups she couldn’t use her full throw because her ankle couldn’t handle the weight. She took three standing throws and incredibly, still managed a good performance.

Fourth event: Long Jump. After not being able to handle full throws in the shot put, I didn’t know how she was going to get through the impact of the long jump. I met with Erik. “She’s about to try something that is nearly impossible. I want you to tape her foot really tight. This needs to be the best tape job of your career.” He did an amazing job but it caused her excruciating pain because the tape was squeezing down on her swollen ankle. I pulled her aside one last time. “You don’t have to do this Olimpia.”
“I’ll be ok.” She answered.
I could barely watch. From a short approach she took her first jump. It was shockingly good. She could have stopped there but she wanted a better mark. Amazingly, her second jump was technically excellent, and even farther than the first.

I will always be in awe at the courage and strength she found to sprint down the runway and take those jumps. The event I expected to knock her out of the competition actually put her in contention for All-American with only one event remaining. Truly inspiring to witness.

Fifth event: 800m. Olimpia was in ninth place heading into the final event, the 800m. She knew she needed a great performance and opted out of taping her ankle. "Tape will slow me down." She said. She started the first of two sections with a visible limp, but her stride got smoother as the race went on. Watching her run her heart out was really something to see. I was just so proud of her. She had come so far. Her time was excellent and after watching the second section I thought it just might be enough to move her into the top eight. All we could do was wait.
When I saw the name, Olimpia Nowak come up in eighth place, I got that emotional jolt I live for as a coach. She was finally a First-Team All-American, only the third female track and field athlete in UNI history to so.

In one of the gutsiest performances I have ever witnessed, Olimpia Nowak had once again found the courage to hope. 

Olimpia with Champion, Brianne Theisen