Adversity is no issue for swimmer Nicole Christensen—in fact, she takes to it like a fish to water. Nicole swims for Snow Canyon High School, where she’s currently a sophomore, and the Southern Utah Swimming Association, a local club. “I love my team. It’s like my second family,” she says. “I also like that it’s an individual sport and I can just focus on my race. When I improve, it’s my improvement.”
“Nicole is a really hard worker,” says Tamara Lemmon, who coaches her at Snow Canyon and through SUSA. “She’s a perennial state championship qualifier. Qualifying for state in club is usually more difficult than in high school, so that alone is an accomplishment.”
Nicole swam in five different events at the club Senior State Championships last February. She has finished in the top 10 the last four years, often swimming faster than girls from 4A and 5A schools.
At last year’s high school state championship, Nicole made it on the podium in the 200m and 500m freestyle. She placed the highest of all the Snow Canyon swimmers. “I’d never really experienced something like that before with my team,” she says. “They were just so excited for me.”
Nicole was born in Snyder, Texas, where her family lived before moving to the suburbs of St. George 11 years ago. Lisa and Shane Christensen, her parents, met at the Southern Utah University swim club; Lisa swam in high school.
Her 13-year-old brother Parker and 9-year-old sister Clara also swim.
Nicole began swimming competitively with a summer swim team at age 8. She later joined the Dixie Aquatics Race Team, qualifying for the club state championships for the first time in the 10 and under age division. She went on to take fourth place in the 100m backstroke. “I try to teach her not to worry so much about her place, but to better herself,” Lisa Christensen says. “My husband and I try to be really encouraging, but ultimately we’ve made it her decision to swim.”
But her success hasn’t always come easily. “I’ve gone through a whole year where I didn’t improve because I was just stuck and couldn’t figure out what I needed to do to get better,” she says. “It was challenging not to just want to quit.”
Her coaches, particularly Bob Floerchinger of the DART Sharks (which were absorbed by the SUSA Stingrays in September 2016), gave her the motivation to stick with it. “Coach Bob always pushed me and had me keep going no matter what,” says Nicole. “I always just wanted to prove to him that I was good and I could do what he wanted me to do.”
She also drew upon her teammates as a source of inspiration. Several of the girls that she grew up swimming club with are now rooting her on at Snow Canyon.
Nicole says that she tries to support her teammates as best she can to keep striving for better results. “She’s a good teammate,” fellow Snow Canyon swimmer Ryleigh Foggin says. “She makes people feel like they have talent and their times do matter.”
Nicole has been dealing with a shoulder injury for the past year. After evaluation by the school’s trainer, she took time off to let it heal, but the pain returns and persists if she puts in too much distance.
Her shoulder is agonizing at times, Nicole says, but she’s able to manage the pain and finish her races. She has continued to achieve many of her goal time standards. “There’s been times when I don’t want to go to practice, but it ends up being a really good practice and I know that I just have to keep going and keep trying and working hard for it,” she says.
Lemmon says that injuries like Nicole’s, usually the result of overuse, are common among swimmers. “We’re using a slightly different training style now than with her past coach, which emphasizes quality over quantity,” she says.
“She’ll swim until her shoulder hurts so bad that she can’t swim anymore, and then she’ll kick, doing the same sets that everyone else is doing but just using her legs,” Lemmon says. “That’s the type of swimmer that you want as a coach.”
On school days, Nicole attends team practice for two hours in the afternoons, then club for an additional hour. SUSA holds practice year-round.
She believes that swimming has improved her academic focus, helping her maintain a 3.8 grade point average. “To swim in high school, you have to have a certain GPA and that helps me keep it up,” she says. Language arts and writing are her best subjects, and she has always taken an interest in science and history. She’s a familiar face in the bleachers at Snow Canyon’s football and basketball games.
Between school and swimming, Nicole doesn’t have a lot of time for herself. She spends weekends with her friends and enjoys baking and cooking for her family when she gets the chance. “She always puts her swimming in front of any recreational activities. It’s a huge commitment,” Lisa Christensen says. “But when it comes to church and religion, that actually comes before her sports and that has really impressed me.”
One of Nicole’s ambitions is to work with children as either a nurse or a teacher. Another is to continue swimming beyond high school. “Nicole is already fast enough that she could swim in college, and she’s got two more years to get faster,” Lemmon says. “If she continues to improve, she can look at scholarships to more competitive schools, Division I or II teams.”
Nicole’s hope for State this season is to take first or second in the 500m freestyle and place in whichever other event she decides to compete in. She has been working on her 100m breaststroke. “I’d also like to see her potentially break the school record in the 500m free,” Lemmon says. “I think that’s a very achievable goal for her this year.”
“I think the 500m free has been my best event because my old coach taught me how to do distance and have endurance, and I’ve always been good at freestyle,” Nicole says.
Snow Canyon’s swimming program has spent the last few years in a rebuilding phase. The Warriors will have an extremely young team again this season, with only one junior and one senior. But Lemmon expects that by the time Nicole is a senior, they could potentially be Region 9 champions. “Snow Canyon women are going to be a force to be reckoned with over the next few years,” says Lemmon. “I believe that Nicole can be a leader who can guide them towards that goal.” • HSSI