Oct. 22, 2012
The Golden Gopher women’s track and field and cross country program has made a few additions to its coaching staff for the 2012-13 season. Former Olympian and All-American Shani Marks Johnson has returned to her alma mater as a volunteer assistant jumps coach, and former Gopher All-Region runner Nikki Swenson has been named a volunteer assistant coach for cross country and track after working as a student assistant last year.
A former Gopher standout, Marks went on to win multiple USA Championships and ultimately compete in the Olympics. She previously served as volunteer assistant for the Gophers from 2003 to 2009. Marks more recently returned to her high school alma mater, Apple Valley, to coach jumps and sprints during the last two years. She has also spent time coaching with the Real Track and Field AAU team and Fuzion Athletics training club, and working as a personal trainer and personal coach.
“Coming back here is a really big deal,” Marks said. “My husband went here, too, so we are huge Gopher fans until the day we die. I couldn’t really see myself coaching anywhere else. I feel definitely connected to the U for the rest of my life. I’m really excited to be able to work with the athletes here.”
In 2008, Marks qualified for the Olympics by winning at the Trials with a career best and Hayward Field record of 47 feet, 2 1/4 inches. She went on to finish 28th in Beijing. Marks is one of three Olympians ever to come out of the Minnesota track and field program. She is the only Golden Gopher track and field athlete to compete for Team USA in the Olympic Games.
During her collegiate career at Minnesota, Marks earned All-America honors during both the indoor and outdoor seasons in 2003, with a runner-up finish in triple jump at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and a sixth-place finish indoors. She was previously an All-American outdoors in 2002. She also won three Big Ten titles: two in outdoor triple jump (2001 and `03), and one in the indoor 600 meters (2001). Marks was a first-team Academic All-American in 2003.
The year after her Gopher career ended, Marks finished fourth at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. In the next four years, she won three USA Outdoor triple jump titles (2006, '07, '08) and two USA Indoor titles (2005 and '07). She competed for Team USA at the 2007 and 2009 Outdoor World Championships, the 2008 Indoor World Championships, and the 2006 World Cup.
“She's coached with me before, and we have a good coaching connection in terms of our style,” director of track and field and cross country Matt Bingle said. “I think she does a good job of understanding the student-athletes and relating with them. She automatically gets respect from them. She's a former Olympian, she's being inducted into the M Club Hall of Fame, and she's one of the greatest triple jumpers ever in the United States. And she's a great person. I think she'll connect well with the team, and I think she'll do a good job of developing them because she's going to have a small group to deal with and can focus on them."
Marks earned her bachelor's degree in public relations in 2002. She completed her master's of education in applied kinesiology in 2003.
Swenson is also set to graduate with a master's degree in applied kinesiology in May 2013. She took on a coaching role following a successful career wearing the Maroon and Gold, serving as a student assistant with the Gopher cross country/distance runners last season.
“It would have been really, really hard for me to just graduate and leave,” Swenson said. “I’m excited about having the opportunity to stick around and help out the girls in the same program that I grew up in and got a lot of help from, having the volunteer assistants and people of leadership around. Having someone like Shani, she has been through the program, too. So we kind of know what they’re going through. Just being able to help them from a different perspective, I think that’s what I’m most excited about.”
Swenson was the Gophers' captain in 2009 and 2010. She claimed 2009 and 2010 NCAA All-Midwest Region honors in cross country and holds Minnesota's 9th-best all-time 6K time (20:45.3-2010) at the Big Ten Championships. Swenson was a member of two (2007 and 2008) Big Ten cross country championship teams as well as (2008 and 2009) Big Ten indoor track team championships. She was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team in indoor track in 2008, 2009 and 2010. She was a member of the Gophers' Big Ten meet rosters all four years of her career.
Swenson competed at the NCAA Cross Country championships her junior and senior seasons after serving as an alternate her first two years. She also qualified for the NCAA outdoor meet twice in the 1,500 meters and once in the 800 meters.
“From my perspective, it’s nice not only to have Sarah Hesser taking over as head coach next year, but also to have someone of Nikki’s caliber as the top assistant,” said head cross country coach Gary Wilson, who is retiring following the 2013 track season. “She had a very good career as a Gopher before she became a student assistant here, and she is ready for the next step as a volunteer assistant.”