|Don Nichter: “I’ve been blessed with special athletes.”
Around the Kline Center you’ll see him most days, a lean muscle of a man in black biking shorts with a full head of blond curls. In his after-work indoor cycling classes he’s an upbeat leader—affable patter accompanying his smiles of encouragement. If Don Nichter can motivate casual middle-aged bikers to push the pedals with gusto, what must he do for finely tuned young athletes?
Scan the record books for cross country and you’ll see. During the 17 years he’s coached the women’s team it has amassed a remarkable 2,166-562 record, including an unbeaten dual-meet streak of 53 wins during the last 12 years. The women have clinched eight of the last nine Centennial Conference titles and three Regional Championships and finished sixth at the NCAA National Championships on Nov. 18 at Ohio Wesleyan College. It’s no wonder Nichter was voted Mideast Region Coach of the Year—the fifth time since 1999.
That Nichter was named top coach again is no surprise to Lowell Ladd ’98, a former Dickinson runner and assistant coach. “Don has tremendous passion for [the program], and he’s put in too much work not to succeed,” Ladd says. “Parents are extremely supportive of their children going to Dickinson when they talk to Don and see what his commitment level is.”
The men’s program, of which Ladd was an early member, has developed nicely over the 13 years that Nichter has been the coach. In the last eight years they’ve finished second in the conference seven times and in the top four in the region twice.
Nichter’s athletes also are champions in the classroom. This fall one man and five women were named individual Academic All Americans, meaning they had a 3.5 GPA or higher. This is the sixth straight year that the women’s and fourth year that the men’s have been Academic All-American Teams.
“A big part of college [team] success is recruiting—attracting good student athletes,” explains Ladd, who now coaches at Chestnut Hill College near Philadelphia and has a business coaching individual runners. “Don does a good job at finding kids who are a good fit for Dickinson College. He also gets students who are good in the classroom and takes a lot of pride in getting Academic All American [recognition].”
“We’re able to draw wonderful student athletes who are interested in coming to Dickinson for the right reason—academics—and who commit themselves to development as distance runners,” confirms Nichter.
“Academic success goes hand in hand with being a good distance runner,” Nichter continues. “They take care of themselves physically as runners and get enough sleep.” They also have good time-management skills and “stay very focused on what their goals are,” he says. “You prepare for exams the way you prepare for a race.”
With Nichter’s nurturance both teams have increased in numbers, from about 10 women when he began in 1989 to 21 today and six men in 1993 to 21 today. He offers an open roster—no cuts. Though most ran in high school it’s not a prerequisite.
“We’re looking for something in here,” he says, tapping his chest. “We don’t care about their times. What’s inside? Is there a passion for the sport? Do they love the sport of distance running and want to get better?”
Alexandra Forte ’03 is a case in point. The first cross-country All-American is now teaching English in Japan before embarking on an M.A. in English at New York University.
“When I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to run cross country and track at college but wasn’t that serious about it,” Forte notes. “By sophomore year, I had decided that running was something upon which I wanted to focus my time outside of academics. It became a way for me to define myself and gave me inspiration for all other aspects of my life.
“Coach Nichter gave me the opportunity to find within myself passion and dedication,” she adds. “I had never felt that I had anything which was ‘mine’, anything that I could call a talent, but running at Dickinson changed that. I don’t think I would have ever pushed myself to reach certain goals or take as many chances as I had if there wasn’t cross country/track to fall back on.” Forte hopes someday to provide other athletes that inspiration as a high-school cross-country coach.
To uplift his athletes one of Nichter’s methods is to send out weekly “psych ups” —motivational messages, stories of people, some runners, some not, who have overcome adversity. An example hangs on the cross-country bulletin board in the Kline Center: “Progress begins with the belief that what is necessary is possible.”— Norman Cousins.
“Some are more physiological, such as how to deal with pain,” Nichter explains. “Others take the emotional component up. In running, the mental, physical and emotional all come into play.
“The first third of a race is mental—you analyze and pace yourself,” says Nichter. “The middle of the race is the nitty-gritty of the physiological. You need to stay focused and work on the mechanics. The third part is the X factor. Your emotional component is elevated to a higher level. It’s about the team not the individual. So the journey on race day involves the mind, body and heart.”
While his runners have certainly excelled on their journeys, for Nichter there are higher goals to achieve. “I’d like to see the men go to the national championships, and I would love to have the women finish in the top four, to be on the [winners’] podium. We have as good an opportunity as anyone to be on that podium.”
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