Wider Horizons

“I have all these little goals and then once I do them, I move on to the next one. So it's hard for me to even reflect on it because it happened and then it's like, ‘OK, it's in the past, moving on, new goal.’”

{Sophia Nowicki }

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Sophia Nowicki sprinted across the finish line and raised her arms ever so slightly – just a quick pump out to her sides before collapsing to the ground. She was a national champion – the top college runner in Canada. But there was no victory lap, no shouts or screams or sighs for Nowicki. That’s just not part of her temperament.

And a year later, when asked to recall the moment she became national champion, her answer was as understated as her finish line celebration. “Um… it was nice.”

The simple phrase provides plenty of insight into the mentality of one of the greatest college runners in Canadian history – the racer who was 26 seconds ahead of her closest competitor at the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference (ACAC) championships in October, the athlete who was the first across the finish line for 10 Canadian college competitions in a row, the competitor who finished on the podium each of the last three years she had run at nationals.

“It was a goal,” she explains. “I have all these little goals and then once I do them, I move on to the next one. So it's hard for me to even reflect on it because it happened and then it's like, ‘OK, it's in the past, moving on, new goal.’”

While others marvel at her achievement, she has already turned her attention to the future, because there is no way Sophia Nowicki will let something as simple as a single race define her life.

“It showed me how much I loved it and I needed it.”

{ Sophia Nowicki }

THE WARM-UP

The crack of a branch underfoot, the chirp of birds in the air and the sound of her own breath, alone with her thoughts – this is the atmosphere where Nowicki fell in love with running. Raised in picturesque Bragg Creek, a hamlet of just under 600 people in the foothills west of Calgary, Nowicki’s environment helped shape her passion for the sport.

“It's a 10 minute drive to the nearest mountain and I’ll just go out and run up the mountain or do trail running,” says Nowicki. “When I'm stressed, it's what I do. I'll go for like a two hour run. It's my stress reliever.”

But early in her career, running began to cause more anxiety than it was relieving. In Grade 7, Nowicki joined the cross country running team at St. Timothy Junior High School in nearby Cochrane. She placed

fifth in the provincial championships; however, it wasn’t enough for Nowicki, who was already ultra-competitive, even at that age.

“I was just this little kid and I was devastated,” she remembers. “I was so mad at myself. So the next year I was like, ‘I'm gonna get on the podium.’” And she did, placing third in the province in Grade 8. But achieving her goal nearly killed her passion for the sport.

As she began to set goals for Grade 9, she hit a mental roadblock. “I just couldn't do it. I didn't want to do it.” So, in Grade 9, she walked away from running. It was a remarkably mature decision for a 14-yearold, and it gave a glimpse at the self-confident personality that would eventually propel her to a national championship.

And it’s likely she never would have become that champion if she hadn’t taken that year off. “It showed me how much I loved it and I needed it,” says Nowicki. She made a triumphant return in Grade 10, winning the Calgary city championship and became one of the top high school runners in the province. She capped off high school with a silver medal at the Alberta provincial championships in Grade 12 and began training with the University of Calgary Athletics Club.

As she wrapped up her decorated high school career, Nowicki was ready to take the step up to post-secondary competition. She felt settled on her future and was excited to run – as a University of Calgary Dino.

 

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THE STARTING LINE

Parts of Nowicki’s life are full of contradictions.

She loves running because it’s a stress reliever, but she’s also ultracompetitive and hates being beaten to the finish line. She loves seeing her teammates succeed, but she won’t think twice about chasing one down if they meet on the race course. And she’s extremely goal-oriented and a long-term planner, but she can also be wildly impulsive.

That’s how she ended up in Lethbridge. While the U of C was her plan, she was lacking a math prerequisite that she needed to enter her preferred area of study, Kinesiology. It was time for a quick pivot.

“My high school coach was like, ‘why don't you go into nursing? There's anatomy there too.’ And I was like, ‘OK, good idea,’” laughs Nowicki. “It was out of the blue, I’d never thought about it, never planned on it, I just kind of decided I wanted to go into nursing.”

Enter Lethbridge College. The Nursing program’s excellent reputation first sold her on the college and the Kodiaks reputation as one of the top cross country teams in Canada helped clinch her decision. Her closest friends were surprised by her sudden decision to pursue nursing, but once she decided she was going, there was no turning back.

She quickly became a standout for the Kodiaks, winning bronze medals at both the conference and national championships during her rookie season. But her greatest challenge came off the course, adapting to the heavy demands of her academics.

“We always talk about the balance between academics and athletics,” says Kodiaks cross country head coach Simon Schaerz. “The reality is, for most athletes, it doesn’t look pretty. It’s so tough to manage all of those things really well.”

Enrolled in pre-nursing classes, the pressure mounted. “My first year was incredibly stressful,” says Nowicki. “I was a hermit, I did not have a social life.” Her grades consumed her life as she worked to make sure she had the credentials needed to enter the nursing program. It was a new challenge, different from what she had ever faced on the course, but she attacked it with the same vigour. “I was like, ‘oh my God, this is so hard, I'm never going to do this.’”

She studied non-stop. When the final marks came in, she had made the grade and was able to enter the nursing program. “I worked my ass off to get into nursing,” she summarizes. It was another checked box on her list of goals. “Now, I love nursing so much, I don't think there's anything I could have done instead,” she says.

“It's a testament to how hard she works on a daily basis,” says Schaerz. “She's the best example of balancing all of the demands of a student-athlete. She has a very regimented schedule and that's how she operates. I think that's a big reason why she has been so successful.”

 

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AND SHE’S OFF

Ramona Stewart shares Nowicki’s passion for running. The Lethbridge College instructor built a kinship with Nowicki and finds parallels between Nowicki’s attitude and that of another runner. “Eliud Kipchoge, who just ran a sub-two-hour marathon, would say ‘work hard, be humble, be disciplined.’ And Sophia does all of that,” says Stewart, who was Nowicki’s anatomy and physiology instructor. She saw firsthand how Nowicki balanced all aspects of her life.

Stewart herself was a competitive runner at the University of Lethbridge before she embarked on a career in education. She organized an annual race in Lethbridge for more than 30 years and still coaches high school cross country. She firmly believes that the lessons learned on the race course translate to success in the classroom and in life. “It's so invigorating, because you start to know that you've got this capability. She’s done the training and knows she can succeed in the race,” says Stewart. “And that confidence and belief in your training is totally transferable.”

In the high-stakes world of nursing, Nowicki has found an area where she can thrive. Nearly halfway through her four-year Nursing Education in Southern Alberta program – a collaborative offering between the college and the University of Lethbridge – she has begun to get a taste of what her future career will hold through her clinical placings. “I’ve learned I adore seniors, with such a passion. I feel like they're such a neglected population,” says Nowicki, who has spent time working in elder care, medicine and surgery at Chinook Regional Hospital.

She’s not sure yet what she will specialize in or where she will end up. But she knows she’ll be fine whatever she decides. “As long as I'm doing my job and doing everything I can for the patient, then I’m making the world a better place,” she says. “Not everyone's a Mahatma Gandhi, they're not going to change the entire world – and that's OK. But I think if I take care of myself and everyone does their job compassionately, and give patients autonomy, then it's a better place for them.” That mindset doesn’t

surprise her instructor. “She's got that vitality and vibrancy that people will pick up on. They'll want to be around her,” says Stewart. “She can say to the patients, ‘yes, you will lift these weights, or get on that treadmill, or go down those hallways because it's going to make you better.’ She can tell them because she's done it and they’ll listen to her.”


CHANGING COURSE

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For a runner on the trail, most of the motivation comes from within. “Cross country is an individual quest,” says Schaerz. “You put yourself first, right? You have to. And that's how you end up being successful.” So it surprised him when Nowicki told him she was joining a different kind of team – the Canadian Armed Forces. Early in spring 2019, Nowicki enlisted and joined the 20th Independent Field Battery, a Lethbridge-based artillery unit, as a reservist. Much like entering nursing, it was another spontaneous decision – she enlisted based on the suggestion of a fellow nursing student. “She was like, ‘hey, you should try this out,’” describes Nowicki. “I was like, ‘OK.’ I handed in my papers and went from there.”

In the Armed Forces she uncovered a team-first side of her mentality that she wasn’t aware of before. “I was always someone very independent, that's why I think I like running, because it's an independent sport,” says Nowicki. “I run my own race and if my teammates are in my race, I'm still going to try to beat them. That's how I am. But it's not like that in military. You’re together, you work together, you work with your team, and it's just completely opened my eyes to that and how important that is.”

Nowicki’s summer was a crash course in teamwork. Alongside the other members of her unit she learned how to operate military weapons and vehicles. She uncovered a fascination for Canadian military history and values. And she pushed herself to her limits during training both in Lethbridge and at CFB Shilo in Manitoba.

She continues to serve as a reservist, taking part in weekly parades and training, and travelling to weekend military exercises throughout the province when her running schedule allows it. She also serves as an ambassador, as she joined Armed Forces displays at the college’s Coulee Fest and Lethbridge’s Canada Day celebrations. or now, nursing – both finishing her education and beginning her career – is her priority in life. But she intends to continue her military service.

“I was never anti-military, but I also never cared or thought about the military,” admits Nowicki. “Being part of it has helped me develop an educated perspective. The military has helped me to understand why it is vital and helped me to gain a new respect for our lost men and women of service. “I aspire to be like the strong women of the military. I feel like they have worked so hard to be where they are and I have the utmost respect for them.”


NEW TERRAIN AND ELEVATION GAINS

Two and a half years into her time at Lethbridge College, Nowicki is a different person than she was when she first arrived on campus. Her time in both nursing and the Armed Forces has helped her mature. During her incredibly stressful first year, it was her Kodiaks teammates who helped her get through, and she now returns that camaraderie during practices, at races and on long bus trips. “She is

very caring and supportive of the other athletes on the team, especially the new incoming runners,” says Schaerz. “And that pulls everybody along.”

She has already made her mark as one of the greatest college runners in not only Kodiaks' but also Canadian history, as she has medalled at both the conference and national levels in each of her three seasons of running, and tallied a 10-race win streak throughout the 2018 and 2019 seasons. In addition to her cross country triumphs at the college, she also runs track and field for the University of Lethbridge.

But to her, finish lines are not a culmination. They’re more like checkpoints on a journey. And she has no intention of slowing down. “I don't ever think about quitting,” says Nowicki. “Running is something I want to do my whole life. Like, even when I’m 40, I plan on running marathons and ultras and trail racing and just trying it all.”

Stewart recalls a story from her own career, when she ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., alongside 12,000 other runners. She asked her coaches where she should stand and they told her to stand at the front because that’s where she belonged. “And that's what Sophia's earned as well,” says Stewart. “She belongs at the front of that pack because there are not many that are going to have trained harder, or done more. She's earned that place.”


THE FINISH LINE

Sophia - 6 - Small Side.jpg One year later, Nowicki once again calmly crossed the finish line. Once again, there was no boisterous celebration – but this time there was also no individual championship. She gave a pat on the back to the silver medallist, then shook hands with the new national champion.

Nowicki took the bronze medal at this year’s Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) championships held in early November. This time, her reaction was less understated and more emotional.

“I’m so happy,” said Nowicki just hours after finishing the race. What made the race different this time was that she had led her Kodiaks team to a CCAA gold medal. She was a national champion once again, but now, it was with her teammates by her side. “What I really wanted this year was the team win,” she said. “That means so much more to me.”

It’s another goal checked off. On to the next one.

As for her individual finish, her understated nature returns.

“I can't even say I'm necessarily disappointed in myself. You can't win every race.” It’s just not in her nature. There is no way Sophia Nowicki will let something as simple as a single race define her life.

 

 

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“Running is something I want to do my whole life. Like, even when I’m 40, I plan on running marathons and ultras and trail racing and just trying it all.”

{ Sophia Nowicki }
Wider Horizons
Story by Paul Kingsmith / Photos by Rob Olson and Jamin Heller
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