It’s evident just by looking at the women’s team roster that senior Nikki Swenson is already a leader of the squad chock-full of freshmen.
Next year, however, the runner who head coach Gary Wilson calls “the mother hen” will ascend a rung up the leadership ladder, from veteran runner to student assistant coach. She hopes that it’s the kick start to her coaching career.
“We’ve kind of watched her,” Wilson, who is in his 26th year of coaching, said. “Down the road, I’m not going to be here, so for the last three years or so we’ve been watching to see who might be the heir apparent to [current volunteer assistant coach] Sarah Hesser.”
When pressed, he added: “I know that’ll be her.
“She’s smart, she’s perceptive and she knows the middle-distances inside and out,” he said.
When Swenson’s running career began at Minnesota, she was among a big class of freshmen, but at the time, the team had plenty of upperclassmen.
Swenson cracked the roster’s top-nine early on and earned the Gophers Freshman of the Year award.
Wilson said Swenson, a second-year captain, has “been through the wars,” so she is an ideal candidate to lead the team in a season like this.
Swenson has been a part of two Big Ten championship teams in her time here, and doesn’t see the team’s youth preventing it from getting another.
“Our motto this year is to surprise people,” Swenson said. “Why would you have your goal set for second place, you know?”
Having had that kind of success in the past, Swenson wasn’t above confronting younger runners when she felt they weren’t conforming to the team’s ideals.
Following the team’s performance at the Roy Griak Invitational, Swenson gathered the other captains and sat the entire team down to let them know all of the little behavioral things they did wrong prior to the race. It was a stern talking, but the young athletes respect each of the captains, Wilson said.
He credited that meeting as one of the primary reasons the team performed so well on the road at the pre-NCAA meet last weekend.
It is leadership ability like that that has Swenson primed and well-suited for a coach’s role Wilson said.
This is Swenson’s final season of eligibility for cross country, and in the spring, she will cap her career with her final season of track and field as well.
She intends to take classes next fall to finish her kinesiology major in exercise physiology. She said she intends to do some coaching after graduation, and it’s that fall when her career will officially begin.
“She keeps people grounded and calm. She’s a very steadying presence,” Wilson said of his future assistant.
For the time being, Swenson said she’s focused on being a cross country student-athlete on a team with aspirations of a Big Ten title. But with coaching in her not-so-distant future, Swenson is getting hands-on experience leading a team with an abundance of youth.
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