Nov. 4, 2005
By Katie Stuhldreher
New Irish swimming coach Carrie Nixon is no stranger to the Golden Dome as she graduated from Notre Dame in 2002 with anthropology, pre-medical, and computer applications degrees.
She is no stranger to gold medals, either, as she is one of the most decorated athletes in Notre Dame history.
It seems only fitting, then, that after setting so many school records while swimming at Notre Dame that she go down in the books with another first — the first female student-athlete from Notre Dame to be hired as head coach at her alma mater.
Nixon came to Notre Dame in 1997, hailing from Montrose, Colorado, where she was a five-time state champion swimmer for Ouray High School and the 1996 Colorado Sportswoman of the Year.
“I wanted to come to Notre Dame because I guess coming from a small town in Colorado, I really liked the family atmosphere at Notre Dame. I wanted to be at a place where I could get to know people really well,” says Nixon.
While at Notre Dame, Nixon wasted little time as she accumulated 12 All-America citations in her five years of eligibility, setting the record for Irish swimming history. Even more impressive, her 18 Big East titles in individual and relay events left her one short of the Notre Dame record for any men’s or women’s sport.
In her senior year, Nixon also received the prestigious Francis Patrick O’Connor Award, which is awarded to one male and one female athlete each year for exhibiting the spirit and leadership embodied by the university. Nixon was also voted swimming’s most valuable player in three of her four years on the team. In 2000, Nixon was also honored as Big East Conference Female Swimmer of the Year.
“Getting awards like this are always kind of weird because I’m flattered that I got this for working hard, but everyone else around me worked just as hard,” says Nixon. “I was really humbled and flattered to receive the Francis Patrick O’Connor Award my senior year, but I thought about how many other great athletes there are here that also could have won.”
Nixon also set the NCAA record for the 50-meter freestyle with 24.99 seconds as a junior, and became the fifth Irish swimmer to win All-America honors later that year.
Nixon recalled that her junior year was her most memorable at Notre Dame. “That meet where I broke the 50-free record was really exciting because it was really the first time that I had the confidence that I could go out there and really do something like that,” she recalls.
Also in 2000, Nixon made a run at extending her success beyond the collegiate level when she attended the Olympic Trials for the Sydney Games. Nixon finished 21st in the 50-meter freestyle and finished in the top 40 in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly.
A nagging shoulder injury affected her performance and concentration at the trials, but Nixon was still glad to have participated.
“It was a great experience and I wish it could have ended up better — a year earlier or a year later and my shoulder would have been fine,” she remembers.
“But that’s how it goes and it was just very exciting to go out there and represent my school and program.”
Nixon’s impressive undergraduate swimming career, however, was not without challenges. The same recurrent shoulder injury kept her out of the pool during the ’00-’01 season. She underwent surgery that November to repair a torn labrum, which necessitated a four-to-six month recovery period.
The setback was disappointing for Nixon in her senior season, especially since she was coming off her most successful year with seven Big East titles and five of her All-America honors (four of which were honorable mention).
One of the most decorated student-athletes in the history of Notre Dame athletics, Carrie Nixon earned a school-record 12 All-America citations during her illustrious career.
Nixon recalls, “That was hands down the hardest year of my life,” recalls Nixon.
“To have to sit and watch a team that I had worked so hard to help build and not be able to go out there and help them in the pool was tough. It was awful to go through it, but once you get to the other side of the tunnel, you realize that it makes you a better athlete. I think it also kick-started my interest in coaching because spending time on the sidelines like that gave me a whole new perspective about the sport.”
Ultimately, Nixon received a medical red shirt and returned for a fifth year of eligibility in 2001, leading the Irish to a 10-0 dual meet record as team captain. That season, Nixon claimed four more Big East titles and four more All-American honors (three of which were honorable mention), allowing her to close out her Irish swimming career with a bang.
While at Notre Dame, Nixon made an impact both in the pool and in the classroom. A Dean’s List student, she served on the Student Athlete Advisory Counsel (SAAC) as the women’s swimming delegate. As a member of SAAC, Nixon was able to collaborate with athletic directors and other team representatives to address issues concerning Notre Dame student-athletes and to improve the academic and athletic environment on campus.
“Academics have always been number one and I stress that weekly with the girls I coach now. There isn’t really professional swimming out there like there is for football or basketball, so once your four years are up, you have to rely on your academic record,” says Nixon.
Nixon also chaired the Student Athlete Welfare Committee, on which she led a committee to create a more efficient Student-Athlete Support Services Survey. Her work on that committee included collaboration with the University’s Athletic Master Plan panel to gather and present athletes’ input on how to best develop the Athletic Department’s future building projects.
Nixon also volunteered her time in the Notre Dame Life Skills Department, a campus student-athlete outreach program serving local schools and the South Bend community.
Following graduation from Notre Dame, Nixon became an assistant swimming and volleyball coach at Ouray High School, where she graduated in 1996.
The following year, Nixon took an assistant coaching position with the Clemson University swimming and diving program. Nixon helped both the men’s and women’s squads to finish in the top 40 at the NCAA Championships, with the men registering their highest win total in program history with a 13-2-1 season record and a fourth-place finish in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Championships. During Nixon’s time as assistant coach, nine Clemson records were also broken — seven on the men’s team and two on the women’s team.
“That year at Clemson was really exciting,” says Nixon. “They really took a chance on me hiring me just out of college without much coaching experience. But I loved it. If the opportunity to come to Notre Dame and coach had not presented itself, I’d probably still be down there.”
In June of 2004, the departure of Irish assistant swimming coach Anne Marie Stricklin left a vacancy that allowed Nixon to return to her alma mater and work under her former mentor, Bailey Weathers. In her first season back at Notre Dame, Nixon helped guide the Irish to 11 wins in 20 events and their ninth-consecutive Big East championship.
In March of 2005, Weathers resigned as head coach and turned the reigns over to Nixon, who had not allowed a single season to pass as a swimmer or coach without an Irish Big East Championship.
Nixon says, “Having been a student-athlete here myself, I understand what the girls are going through and I think that makes our relationship better because they know that I’ve been there and that I survived. I think it gives them confidence that they’ll make it, too, which generates a kind of respect that other coaches might not have.”
Nixon’s career as head coach is only in its opening stages this season, but so far the results have been impressive. The 2005-06 swimming season started with the Dennis Stark Relays on October 7, in which the women’s team racked up 240 points, winning 10 of 13 events, and breaking two meet records.
“This is it for me,” says Nixon.
“Coaching at Notre Dame is my dream job and I am still kind of surprised that it happened so early in my career. My goal was always to get back here someday and coach.”