As successful athletic programs graduate senior leadership and example, someone is needed to fill the shoes of the graduated athletes and step into the role of the team leader. This year, Nikki Swenson is that someone.
Swenson, in her fourth year on the cross country and track & field teams at the University of Minnesota, brings knowledge and experience to the large number of young athletes on the cross country team this fall. The senior from Dawson, Minn., is one of the few returning runners from last year’s top group. Standing as a team captain and a senior, Swenson has taken on the role of one of the team’s experienced leaders.
“Nikki has always been a wonderful role model,” said Golden Gopher head coach Gary Wilson. “This year her leadership has reached new heights. The women on this team look on her as a very calming influence. She brings a wonderful sense of quiet confidence to everyone on this team.”
“I enjoy this role; it’s fun.” Swenson explained. “Seniors helped me so much when I was a freshman. You’re on a huge campus with a huge team. So now, I’ve stepped into that senior role.”
Despite the fact that 21 of the 49 runners on the team’s roster are either redshirt freshmen or freshmen, Swenson believes that a successful season lies ahead.
“Team-wise, we can be just as competitive. We are just as strong. We have big goals ahead of us and we will surprise a lot of people.” Swenson said, stressing the team aspect of Minnesota’s cross country program and its ability to build a strong team each year. “It’s cool to see our program reload and have people take over as we graduate a class.”
Swenson, in addition to running on the 2007 and 2008 Cross Country Big Ten champion lineups and competing in the 2009 NCAA Cross Country Championships, has had many successes on the track including competing in the 2009 and 2010 NCAA Outdoor Track Championships and being a 2008, 2009 and 2010 indoor All-Big Ten Second Team honoree. The middle distance events, the 800m and the 1500m races, are her specialties. For someone who specializes in shorter events, the 6-kilometer distance of cross country races can at times be viewed as a challenge. Swenson, however, has found success in both distances and enjoys them for different reasons.
“I like the fact that in cross country we do everything together. We are one huge force. But I also like the speed and intensity of the 800 and 1500.”
Sometimes, Swenson explained, for a middle distance runner, breaking up the longer races into smaller sections and taking it bit by bit makes the 6-kilometer courses easier to run. To help her during races, Swenson often recalls watching Chris Solinsky break the American record in the 10k after running it for the first time. After the race, Solinksy said he told himself during the race to “stick for another K.” Swenson uses this in her races as well.
“I’m a mid-distance person, so thinking of it bit by bit helps. Twenty minutes seems long, but three minutes doesn’t. You just have to stick with it for another K and see what happens.”
Swenson stressed that as she has grown through the years running for Minnesota, she has learned to think of herself as a true cross country runner in addition to a middle distance track runner, and has also learned to face races with a strong mentality.
“Sometimes you just have to stick your nose in there. That’s key.” Swenson said, acknowledging that at times it can be difficult to take risks during a race, but it usually pays off causing many athletes to surprise themselves. “Don’t chase the times, just be a racer and see what you can do.”
As a senior captain, Swenson passes along these pieces of advice to the younger runners and looks forward to this fall season. With a strong racing mindset and three years of experience, Swenson enters her final season of cross country with big goals for herself and her teammates and an excitement to see the team develop.
“It’s fun to see younger girls step up and see what they can do. It’s cool to see them believe in themselves, trust in the program, and even see them emerge as leaders.” Swenson said. “It’s also cool seeing how you come in at the beginning of the year and then seeing people step up and surprising themselves.”
Swenson thinks team chemistry is also a big factor in success for the cross country season, and believes there is no shortage of it on her team.
“Things happen when you have good team chemistry. You can do huge things.” Swenson said.
Swenson can hardly believe this cross country season will be her last for the Gophers. Since dreaming of competing for the Gophers from the time she was in fourth grade and looking forward to the mile run each year in elementary school, Swenson finds herself happy and thankful to have had the opportunity to run for the university she had always wanted to attend. Amidst the personal goals she has for herself this season, one stands out for her among the others.
“I just want to enjoy myself and enjoy why I run.” Swenson explained. “I want to be that consistent runner you can always count on. If I do that, the PR’s will come.”
Written by Danielle LeBreck, Minnesota Athletic Communications Student Assistant and a member of the Golden Gopher women's cross country team.