Chimko takes unusual vacation with Minnesota soccer team

by Monica Wright

When All-American javelin thrower and track and field co-captain Nicole Chimko decided last spring she needed a break from her first sport, she went straight to Barbara Wickstrand.
Neither a travel agent offering trips to Hawaii nor a yoga instructor with tips on relaxation techniques, Wickstrand is instead the coach of the women’s soccer team.
And this is where Chimko’s and Webster’s definitions of a “break” diverge.
Rather than take time off, Chimko decided she wanted a chance to brush up on her soccer skills.
According to NCAA rules, as long as an athlete has not redshirted during the tenure of their first sport — Chimko did not — they can play another sport during their fifth year in school.
“Last year I hinted to Wickstrand that I played soccer for eight or nine years and wouldn’t mind seeing what I could do,” Chimko said. “I needed a break from track but I still wanted to be involved.”
And with reserve goalie Kelly Kraft injuring her ACL, the team was in need of a backup.
But with Chimko, one of Minnesota’s most decorated field athletes, not everyone thought it was a perfect match.
With four Big Ten titles, three NCAA appearances and a school record in the discus among her many accolades, coaches Gary Wilson and Lynne Anderson were hesitant to let their prized athlete throw herself on the ground for a soccer ball.
Especially when Chimko still has an indoor season to think about this winter.
“At first they were both skeptical, but the idea grew on Lynne as I started playing a little better,” Chimko said. “Wilson just knew I wanted to do it and I’m thankful that he let me.”
But Chimko also had an entire soccer team to convince she belonged on the field and not in the weight room.
To brush up on her skills she spent her summer learning to dive for the ball to avoid injury when in goal and building up her endurance, something she doesn’t cultivate as a thrower.
The work paid dividends. Wickstrand and the team were impressed by Chimko’s natural ability on the field.
“Nicole never played goalie before, which amazes me,” Wickstrand said. “She has great touch and field skills and she is really fast and a strong presence.
“If she had one more year of eligibility she would be an awesome goalkeeper.”
With the skills area down, Chimko also had to become accustomed to working as a team player instead of an individual athlete, something she said came more easily than expected.
“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be and it’s nice to be a part of a team again,” Chimko said. “I’ve been in individual sports for so long that I can motivate myself and rely on myself a lot, and I think that helps me now.”
For the rest of the team it was an easy sell. From her intense schedule — which keeps Chimko on campus twelve hours per day and still includes lifting for track — to her ease as a senior leader, no one questioned her right to be on the field.
And though she is a relative newcomer to the sport and the team, she has taken the recent scoring slump just as personally as veteran senior Erin Holland.
“Nicole takes just as much accountability when we lose as the rest of us,” Holland said. “She is a phenomenal athlete and the younger players look up to her work ethic and the strides she takes to learn.”
Chimko’s athletic prowess has also encouraged Wickstrand to move play her at forward, giving her a chance to experience all angles of the field.
With Chimko’s vacation more than half over, everyone from coaches to players have found it successful.
And if any other athletes are considering a stint as a soccer player, Wickstrand said she would encourage it.
“Bring them on. We’ll work on getting them in soccer shape.”

Monica Wright covers soccer for the daily and welcomes comments at [email protected]