June 28, 2005
By Bo Rottenborn
This week’s entry in the Monogram Club’s “Tuesday Testimonial” series features a visit with Notre Dame’s newest head coach, Carrie Nixon, who took over the women’s swimming and diving program in May after serving as an assistant during the 2004-05 season. A member of the Monogram Club, Nixon swam at Notre Dame from 1997-2002, winning 18 BIG EAST championships, earning All-America honors on 12 occasions, and breaking the NCAA record in the 50-meter freestyle. This testimonial features some of her thoughts when she left her alma mater three years ago (captured on video the night of the first-ever O.S.C.A.R.S. – Outstanding Students Celebrating Achievement & Recognition Showcase), as well as intense and passionate ones from today, as she embarks upon her newest challenge with her unquestionable love for Notre Dame burning stronger than ever.
One of the most decorated student-athletes in Notre Dame athletics history, Nixon was named the fourth head coach in program history and became the first Notre Dame female student-athlete ever to return to her alma mater as a head coach. In her six-year affiliation with the program – as a swimmer from 1997-98 to 2001-02 and an assistant in 2004-05 – Nixon has helped Notre Dame win the BIG EAST championship each season by more than 175 points. The Irish have been in the top 30 at the NCAAs in all but one year of her affiliation and have been a regular presence in the national rankings, including achieving the program’s first-ever top-10 ranking in 1999-2000. Individually, the Nixon years have seen the Irish post 58 first-place finishes at the BIG EAST meet (just under 10 per year), earn 33 invitations to the NCAA Championships (5.5 per year), cop seven All-America accolades (plus 30 more honorable-mention All-America citations). All but two of the current Notre Dame swimming records were set during Nixon’s affiliation with the Irish.
During her time as a student-athlete, she was tabbed an All-American twice and on 10 other occasions was named honorable mention All-America, with that total of 12 All-America citations standing as the most in program history. She won 18 BIG EAST titles – six individual and 12 relays – which stands one shy of the Irish record for any sport. In 2000, Nixon set the NCAA record in the 50-meter freestyle (24.99), became the first Irish swimmer to be the top qualifier in any event at the NCAA Championships, and finished fourth at the NCAAs in the 50, a result that still stands as the best-ever by a Notre Dame swimmer. She also was tabbed the BIG EAST Championships Most Outstanding Swimmer that year after finishing first in all seven of her events (50 free, 100 free, 100 fly, 200 and 800 free relay, 200 and 400 medley relay), an accomplishment still unequaled in Irish history.
Carrie Nixon, a two-time All-American, earned honorable-mention All-America accolades 10 times.
Nixon, who missed the 2000-01 season with a shoulder injury, remains the Notre Dame record holder in the 50 (22.39) and 100 free (49.18), as well as the 100 butterfly (54.07). She continues to hold all of the 10 best times in program history in the 50 free, as well as each of the top nine in the 100 free. Nixon also swam on four relay teams that still hold Irish records: the 200 free (1:32.01), 400 free (3:21.25), 200 medley (1:41.93), and 400 medley (3:40.98). The BIG EAST Championships records still feature her in three events – 50 free (22.58), 200 free relay, and 400 medley relay – and her time of 22.94 in the 50 in the 1998 Notre Dame Invitational is the quickest in Rolfs Aquatic Center history, as is the 3:45.77 mark by the 400 medley relay team she anchored in the 2001 Shamrock Invitational.
Three times voted Notre Dame’s MVP, Nixon also participated in the U.S. Olympic trials in 2000, taking 21st in the 50-meter freestyle and finishing in the top 40 in both the 100 free and 100 fly.
She graduated in 2002 as a pre-professional studies/anthropology and computer applications double major. As a senior, Nixon was honored with the Francis Patrick O’Connor Award, which each year recognizes one female and one male Notre Dame student-athlete who best exemplify the spirit and leadership the University embodies in their actions and inspirations to their respective teams.
Carrie Nixon and Grant Irons were the 2002 recipients of the Francis Patrick O’Connor Awards before taking part in video interviews about their Notre Dame experiences.
On the night that she was presented with the O’Connor Award, she took time to reflect on her Notre Dame experience, at that time believing it had likely come to a conclusion. That interview saw her – in unconscious foreshadowing – longing to extend her time at Notre Dame, discussing how the injury that sidelined her allowed her to gain greater understanding of coaching, and relaying how a meeting with former football coach Lou Holtz kickstarted a love affair with Notre Dame that still continues. Below are excerpts from that interview.
Tuesday Testimonial – Entry #3 (Part I), Carrie Nixon (women’s swimming & diving, `02); April 29, 2002
“It is surreal to be leaving. It is such a cool family here, and I almost don’t want to leave. I was fortunate enough to be one of the ones who got to stay here five years, but I would like to be staying for a sixth and a seventh and just keep on going. It is nice to move on, but it is sad to leave.
“I came here really wanting to build a program. I wanted to be a part of something that I could contribute to and make it better, rather than just take part in a program that was already great. I wanted to make something great. I saw that opportunity here, and that was one of many reasons that I came here. I feel like we have really taken some huge steps forward as a team and for Notre Dame. It was more than I could have possibly imagined.
“Sitting out [due to injury] was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it put me more in a coaching position, rather than as a member of the team. It showed me a whole different aspect of the sport. I understand a lot more about what the coaches do. Before I thought it was just being on deck and coaching us, but there is so much more. I have a new respect for them. It was really fun to see the girls progressing throughout the season. You have a skewed view when you are concentrating on your own progression, but I was really able to take great joy in watching them improve.
“The whole athletic department has been amazing. There is always someone supporting you, watching your back and pushing you to be a better student and better athlete. Other coaches and athletes even come up to you and offer encouragement. There is such a support system here.
“On my recruiting trip, I met Lou Holtz, who was in his last year here. He took the time to shake the hands of all of the recruits, even though he was warming up the team – I love football, and I know how important it was for him to be preparing for that big game [#11 ND beat #16 Washington 54-20 that day]. But he said, `Welcome to Notre Dame. I hope you come here. It’s a very special place.’ That just hit me, and right then I knew I wanted to be a part of that. Every experience since then has deepened that.
“This is such a special place, and you’ll take it with you the rest of your life. I just feel that you have invested a part of your life here, and you want to help more. You want to invest after you leave. I love it here. I’m glad I came.”
Upon graduation, Nixon returned to her native area – southwestern Colorado – and served as an assistant coach for the Ouray High School volleyball team (for which she was a standout during her prep years) and the Ouray club swimming team. Nixon then was an assistant coach for the Clemson University men’s and women’s teams in 2003-04, helping both squads finished among the top 40 at the NCAA Championships. She returned to her alma mater in June 2004 to become an assistant coach before elevating to head coach on May 13, 2005.
Bailey Weathers and Carrie Nixon were honored as the top coaching staff in the BIG EAST Conference in 2005.
Below are some of Nixon’s thoughts from today, as she engagingly describes what her alma mater means to her, a special community of people that she now calls “home.”
Tuesday Testimonial – Entry #3 (Part II), Carrie Nixon (women’s swimming & diving, `02); June 28, 2005
“Simply put: I love Notre Dame. I can’t get enough. It’s a love affair of sorts – one I always had hoped for, never expected I’d find, and now cannot imagine living without. Eight years now after my first day on campus, I find myself equally as childish about this place as I have ever been. It’s the little things that get you excited here … the warm glow of The Grotto on a snowy night, the sparkling Dome after a thick fog, the echo of cheers across campus on game day. It is the lemon cake at South Dining and the tranquil sound of a nap in front of Stonehenge on a warm spring afternoon.
“I love all of it … down to the last blade of grass. Notre Dame is about a lot of things – tradition, community, service, family, commitment, hard work, loyalty, passion, strength – but it’s also so much more. Each person who passes through this place feels some incredible sense of ownership as they leave their mark – touched in some way by the magic that surrounds campus. Notre Dame is about PRIDE. Pride in our country, pride in our families, pride in our body of work. It’s about feeling great when you’re here and longing for it when you’re away.
“I grew up in a very small mountain town in Colorado, far, far away from Notre Dame … 700 people, one paved road, no stoplights, no fast food, no mall, and snow-capped peaks in every direction. Dare I say I was somewhat sheltered as a kid – never really had any of the experiences that I imagined most kids had growing up. My life was a blur of swimming and snowboarding, school and sports, hiking, jeeping, and river rafting. I used to pray every weekend in church that my parents would invest in cable television (which never happened) and spent my free time doing things that everyone else took vacations to try.
“In Colorado, it’s all about the experience of things – the thrill of riding a horse at full gallop or bugling in a bull elk from a sloping river basin. It’s about standing at the top of a 15,000-ft. peak only to find that your buddy at the summit is a full-grown big horn sheep. My town was, and still is, a community – the kind of place that touches you somewhere deep within, at your soul roots, singing this incredible song that just lifts your spirits every time you open your eyes. And coming from that, I never imagined that I could possibly find another place like it.
“I have always valued `home’ … the place itself, sure, but mostly the comfort and peace that exists in that space. It’s the people `at home’ who really make it so wonderful – the friends and family, cats and dogs. Lucky me that somehow in the mix of things, I’ve managed to find two `homes’ that tickle me in such a way I just can’t see life making sense without either one. And as with most good things, I owe my parents for both.
“My mom and dad are great. And I need to thank them more for that. When I became a collegiate coach and started recruiting athletes myself, I suddenly realized what a blessing `supportive parents’ are. I can only imagine how hard it must have been (and still must be) for my dad, a USC Trojan, to willingly let his daughter explore other collegiate options during the recruiting process – yet he was the first one to shed tears when I signed my Irish letter of intent. He still maintains his SC sanity by calling at 5:00 a.m. every November to play the `Victory’ Trojan fight song, but has remained my biggest fan throughout my career at Notre Dame – diligently wearing his green t-shirts every time we swim.
“My mom, a UCLA Bruin, is the family `team chameleon,’ and has a closet full of gear … a baby blue and yellow cardigan from her Pi Phi days in Cali, an SC hat from last year’s championship football run, a slew of Kansas Jayhawks basketball garb (my brother was a KU grad), and a few Christmases worth of Notre Dame adidas products. I remember my parents came out for the SC-ND game my freshman year – both dutifully dressed in gold and blue. Talk about unconditional love for a child … it must have been torture for my dad. I asked him years later how he’d managed to soak up so much Irish pride that afternoon, and his answer was as simple as ever: `You can’t cheer for anyone else when you’re actually there.’ What a great thing that is … to be entirely engulfed in a moment as if nothing else matters … to feel at `home’ in a new place even when you are bleeding the opponent’s colors. Love and support above all else … that’s the great thing about great parents. And it’s the great thing about `home.’
Nixon remains one of the most-decorated competitors in Notre Dame athletics history.
“Notre Dame for me has always been about that pride – the experience and the process of pushing through the hard times and coming out on the other side a better person and a better athlete. I remember my first day at the pool my freshman year – an eager team embarking on a new season. Our freshman class was the biggest yet, 12 strong, with a resume that spoke of grandeur … Olympic Trials qualifiers, national champions, high school All-Americans. And being freshmen, we thought we were all experts on the finer points of swimming – yet standing on that Irish deck for the first time, I think we all felt that perhaps this time, things might be a little different. It’s a funny thing that happens to a newcomer … the realization that for as much as you already know, you truly don’t know anything at all. You are humbled by the experience of embarking on something entirely fresh and clean, and boy is it a great feeling.
“One of our captains that year was an absolute animal. Linda Gallo … the Beast, as we so fondly called her. A distance swimmer extraordinaire, former walk-on now looking to score at NCAAs … she could out bench press most of the guys and dwarfed us puny newbies with her physical presence. Linda had no problems getting up on the blocks against the best swimmers in the country, no fear – and was one of the truest of Notre Dame athletes around. Her heart, her competitiveness, her loyalty to the school and to the sport was exactly what I had envisioned my experience would be at career’s end … a body of incredible work, a masterpiece of passion and exertion. I wanted to go out on top, and Linda was already there … an elite athlete, an inspiring teammate, and a leader through action. She was also 100% pure guts.
“So on that first day, standing on deck in a suit and cap from my club team at home, Linda approached the four of us freshmen who had unknowingly picked the four lanes closest to hers. She had four Notre Dame caps and four blue swimming suits in hand, and passed them out in total silence, letting the suspense hang thickly in the air. She looked each of us in the eyes, handed us our gear, and winked slyly as she moved to the next person – very methodical about the process of this moment and taking her sweet time in doing it. The eight other freshmen who were apparently `not chosen’ for this task had moseyed on over by now, peaking out from behind larger shoulders, wondering what in the world was going on. No one on the team spoke a word. When Linda had finished, she nodded to the locker room – suggesting we go change – and began her pre-practice preparation. It was a Captain’s Practice Day, so the workout on the board was the product of an imaginative teammate.
“Now, if you’ve ever been late to something, you’ll know the sinking feeling we felt as we walked back out on deck, sporting our new uniforms. The entire team, all 35 of them, must have gotten in just as we had disappeared into the locker room and were well into the first set of warm-up by now. The four of us, feeling a little betrayed, hurried back to our original lanes and looked for a good spot to jump into the water. `Hold up!’ came a voice from the other end – Linda. `Just wait right there, I’ll be down in one second.’
“It was more like 30 seconds, but as the rest of the team split out of our lane and began lining the sides of the pool, we realized what was going on. Cold turkey, no warm up – 400 medley relay from a dive. The goal? To break the current Irish team record … hot shot freshmen on the spot. `You put on an Irish cap, you swim fast. It’s pretty easy,’ Linda chirped.
“And I think that’s what our Irish teams were all about in the five years I spanned the program as an athlete. Tough as nails, solid heart, and a pool full of guts. We broke the team record that first day, and never looked back … five consecutive BIG EAST titles and a slew of NCAA honors. A TEAM first, with individuals second. For us, there were certainly bumps in the road, but we met them with strength, and with our teammates right next to us in the battle. We refused to lose, hated negativity, and constantly challenged each other to be better than ever. And we were IRISH!! Spilling pride with every breath and oozing blue and gold through gritting teeth.
Carrie Nixon is the first female Notre Dame student-athlete to return to her alma mater as a head coach.
“The years went quickly, and life moved on. Graduation was both a goodbye to my Irish swimming suits and a hello to the greater purpose of those experiences. The Monogram Club became a staple in my life – an extended family of Notre Dame athletics, and an avenue to give back all that I owed the University. It became a passion of mine to be a `fan’ for the first time – an outsider with an inside scoop, and someone who followed every Irish sport with the same vivacity that I poured into my career as an athlete in years past. The Club was great in nurturing that newfound loyalty – newsletters, internet updates, and alumni gatherings – and it became my greatest source for Irish information. The transition from athlete to `normal’ was arduous, but in feeling again that sense of an extended family in every corner of the world, I found that I was able to move on with ease.
“But as life would have it, everything came full circle, and I once again found myself in the throngs of Irish fiction. My allegiance was too strong to resist, I suppose, so when I had the opportunity to return to this great institution as a coach, I welcomed it with open arms. No questions asked where should I park? Irish at heart.
“You see, to me, bleeding blue and gold means giving back. It means returning the favor to all those who made your experience what it was, and gifting your good fortune to the next generation. That’s why I became a coach in the first place – to help new athletes feel the same pride and strength from their hard work – and it’s why, when given the chance to return, I didn’t flinch. Having the honor now to lead this Irish team, to take everything I have learned and give it back to the team that I love – simply amazing. Simply perfect. Add a little bit of Irish luck and a drop of chlorine, and we’ve got a magical potion to work with. I can’t wait to get started.
“Say it out loud – IRISH PRIDE!!”
Do you have a recommendation of a former Notre Dame student-athlete to participate in the “Tuesday Testimonial” series? If so, please pass on the individual’s name and contact info. (if available) to Monogram Club archivist/publicist Pete LaFleur at firstname.lastname@example.org.