Throwback Thursday: Kristin Nilsen

July 14, 2011

Ballwin, Mo. native, Kristin Nilsen was a stand-out swimmer in the breaststroke and individual medley events for the Jayhawks from 1994-98. She was the school record holder in the 200 breaststroke and 400 IM and was a member of the fastest 400 individual medley relay team in KU history. An All-American, for all four years that she swam, Nilsen graduated from KU in 1998, only to return to the classroom for nursing school a few years later. She currently works as a nurse inside the HematologyOncology Departmentat St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

At what age did you start swimming? Who or what inspired you?
“I started swimming when I was eight years old for a summer team. I got into the sport because my family and I went to the city pool one time and it was closed because of a swim meet, so I said to my parents, `I want to do that next year’. I just thought it looked interesting and fun. Ironically enough my mom did not know how to swim, so she put my brother and I in swim lessons. They never thought I would take off, but I did and started year-round swimming when I was 10 years old.”

Why did you choose to attend KU?
“When I was a freshman, the staff asked me that same question and I said it was because of the Jayhawk. Now of course that I can look back on it, I have a different answer for why I chose KU. Growing up in Missouri, I never had the desire to go to Mizzou. I had other scholarship offers, but I just really liked the coaching staff and the team that I had met with in Lawrence, so, I decided on Kansas. My brother was a sophomore at KU at the time, so that was also a contributing factor. Unfortunately, he passed away from cancer in between my senior year and fifth year of college. Looking back at it, I know that God allowed my brother and I to go to Kansas so that we could spend two years together.”

What are some of your favorite swimming memories at Kansas?

“My favorite memory at KU would have to be my final race. I was at the NCAA’s and I was the only one that had qualified that year. We were up in Minnesota and my last event was the 200 breaststroke. After I swam, we had to wait for the last heat to go. I had to beat two people in the final heat to make it back in the top-16 to be able to receive an individual All-American. I found out that I made it in the top-16 and it was just a good way to walk away from a great career and know that I had done everything I wanted to. I have no bad memories of being a swimmer here, but there are definitely some swims I would like to forget. It was tough because my brother was going through cancer treatments while I was team captain my senior year, so I just had a lot of responsibilities weighing on me but I was still able to swim and train at the level I needed to.”

Kristin during competition

What do you miss most about being a KU student-athlete?

“The thing I miss the most is watching everyone compete and the teamwork that comes with it. I love when we all come back for Alumni weekend now, and Facebook has been really great just to keep up with everyone you swam with. Something that I have learned is that is that KU is a place, and while I love that place it was the people that made KU so special to me. When you are living on campus and in college, you are just all together and living the same lifestyle. Then you go out there in the real world and it’s kind of a shock. Just being a part of the same life-style and phase of others around you is a special time in your life, so I would say that is what I miss the most, just the excitement of being a member of such a big family”

What is one thing you knew at the end of your career that you wish you
had known as a freshman?
“Just to enjoy each moment because I think as a freshman you think `oh my gosh, I still have four more years,’ but each year goes by faster and faster. I would say, enjoy it because you only have four years of eligibility and you can never get that back.”

What do you currently do for a living?
“I actually graduated from Kansas with a business degree and was working in the business world for about 4.5 years. It was okay, but I just was not happy being in business. I knew in my heart that I needed to go back to school and become a nurse after seeing the treatment and care that my brother had received at the doctor’s office with his nurse. So because of that, I ended up going back to nursing school from 2004-06. I fell in love with pediatric medicine and the last five years I have been working in Hematology/Oncology. In my job, I take care of kids with blood disorders and cancer. It has been such a blessing and so many of these kids have touched my life. It is a wonderful feeling being able to give back the support and love my family was given to some other family.”

Kristin with her brother during his battle with cancer

How do you think having been a student-athlete at KU helps you in your current position?

“Although swimming was an individual sport, there was a large team aspect to it as well. During my career, I swam the IM (Individual Medley) and breaststroke, but I needed the 50 freestylers and my teammates swimming the 100 backstroke to do their job, because it was a whole team effort. There was no way I was going to win the entire swim meet by myself. I have taken that mindset into the business world and then into the medical arena because it is all about taking a team approach. The nurses cannot do everything and the doctor’s cannot do it all either, but together we can get things done. As a team, everyone achieves more and there is no `I’ in team. So those types of things as well as the discipline and time management skills I learned from athletics have stuck with me and helped me throughout my life.”

How often do you get back in the pool?

“I have swam on and off again. At St. Jude’s they have a marathon and a half marathon and a 5K. I signed up for the half marathon and I am not a runner so I really do not know how I am going to run 3.1 miles. I thought I could probably swim it faster than I could run it, but I do keep in shape even though I am not swimming much. I have actually been training for the race and I just keep thinking of the kids and how they can’t give up as motivation. They have to keep fighting even when they do not feel like it, so I can keep running, while thinking about my brother and the kids at the hospital I have lost along the way, as they are my true heroes.”

Do you still keep in contact with former teammates/coaches at KU?

“I try to make it to the Alumni meet every other year and I actually went and saw my former coach (Gary Kempf) and his wife in Kentucky around January. I keep in touch with them because Gary did not treat me like just an athlete. He saw me as a person first, then as an athlete. I say this because I got the news that my brother had cancer the day before the start of the Big 12 Championships. My mom was not able to come down, but my dad came to the meet and had to tell me why my mom was not in the stands. Gary always told me that if I was at the biggest meet of my life and I needed to be home, they would make sure I would get home as soon as possible. I have always respected him because of that.”

Kristin with her teammates
If you could give one piece of advice to a current member of the swimming & diving team, what would you tell them?
“My advice to freshman would be to make sure you get good grades your first semester because if you put yourself in a hole, it is really hard to get out of. It is important to just use the support the athletic department provides you with. Also, I would say to buy into what the coaches are telling you because they know what they are talking about. All freshmen need to be a team player because you cannot win the meet by yourself, so just be willing to roll up your sleeves get the job done. There is no sport at Kansas that is an individual sport. They are all about the team, so just buy into the process and be proud to be a Jayhawk!”