QA₂Max: Middlebury Coach Nicole Wilkerson

NEW ORLEANS – When Nicole Wilkerson took the reins of the Middlebury distance squad from legendary coach Terry Aldrich in January 2011, she inherited a uniquely situated program. The women had won six NCAA Division III cross country championships in the 2000s (including one in 2010 to give Aldrich the ultimate retirement present), while the men had qualified for exactly one national meet in school history.

Nicole Wilkerson
Nicole Wilkerson
Head Coach, Middlebury

In Wilkerson’s short tenure as head XC/assistant track coach, the Panther women have finished runners-up, 11th, and third at nationals, while the men’s program has hit new heights, taking 13th, eighth, and seventh in DIII the last three years.

Only nine coaches in the nation (any division) led both men’s and women’s teams to a top ten finish at their NCAA meet a year ago. Here’s the list, with years as head coach in parentheses: Colorado’s Mark Wetmore (20), Grand Valley State’s Jerry Baltes (16), Augustana (S.D.)’s Tracy Hellman (14), Chico State’s Gary Towne (19), Western State’s Jennifer Michel (8), Alaska Anchorage’s Michael Friess (25), Adams State’s Damon Martin (27), Williams’s Pete Farwell[1] (36), and Wilkerson (4).

Note that Wilkerson is unique in having half the head coaching tenure and twice the X chromosomes of everyone on that list (save Michel). As an athlete, she was an All-American at Rice and qualified for the 1996 Olympic Trials in the 10k; she began her coaching career as a Texas A&M assistant in 1998 before moving to Middlebury as an assistant in 2001.

We caught up with her before the Panthers begin their season in earnest on Saturday.

Nicole WilkersonCourtesy: Middlebury

Q: How are you feeling about your teams this season?

A: I feel good about both. We have great leadership up front, a nice pack. Neither team is super senior-heavy, we’ve lost a few bodies from last year. The team chemistry is quite good; it’s already been a lot of fun.

Q: Speaking of losing bodies from a year ago, one of those is Katherine Tercek, who was 65th as a sophomore and is studying abroad this fall. How do you make training at a really high level fit into life at a place like Middlebury where your athletes have so many other opportunities and priorities?

A: Well, it starts in the recruiting process. In some ways, Middlebury is an easy sell—the kids have to come here for the school, and not just because they want to be on the team. In Katherine’s case, going abroad was something she talked about from the beginning.

I’m not ever going to say “don’t go, I just want you to focus on running” to someone in Katherine’s position. There’s always a balance. When it’s time to focus on training and racing, then we talk about making sacrifices in other areas. But there are just too many good things to do at a place like Middlebury for that to always be the case.

Q: 2010 was the first time in school history the men made nationals; since then, they’ve been 13th, 8th, and 7th at NCAAs. Meanwhile, the women were the dominant program in DIII in the 2000s (they’ve won twice as many championships as North Central’s men this century!). How do you balance coaching two teams with such different history and tradition?

A: Really good question. I definitely coach them differently. The women—not that they rest on their laurels, but they just have so much tradition and success, so they look to build on that. And the men are so hungry to do that, to have that. They want to create their own legacy, to get on that level. It took a little bit of practice for me to learn how to fuel those fires differently.

In 2001 (my first year as an assistant at Middlebury) the women won NCAAs and the men took 41st at regionals. Until then, I didn’t know that it was possible for a team to score over a thousand points at a cross country meet. As an assistant, I saw the women winning nationals and the men scoring a thousand points at regionals and thought, “here’s my niche.”

I worked really closely with the men’s team for years as an assistant, so it’s a natural flow coaching both teams now. We practice at the same time, but we have separate team meetings, a different tone, a different way of encouraging people. The way we have it now, it’s seamless.

Nicole WilkersonCourtesy: Middlebury

Q: We found some great remarks you made marking Terry Aldrich’s retirement. That was four years ago, meaning that this group of seniors is the first group that’s been solely coached by you their entire careers. What has it been like to have that first group come through that was entirely yours?

A: There’s been some pressure. There’s a lot of mutual respect between me and that first group. I really enjoyed working under Terry, but it’s nice to not be riding his coattails. I am definitely riding his coattails in terms of tradition and team culture, but this is my first group of seniors that came through just under my coaching. It’s been pretty rewarding to see them succeed, and pretty stressful.

There’s a lot of communication between me and the teams—we hold office hours twice a week, and at times that can be more important than practice.

Q: Only 19 out of 90 ranked women’s teams have a head coach who is a woman, and you and Jen Michels at Western State are the only two head coaches of ranked men’s teams in the entire NCAA. My question isn’t “how do we get more women into coaching?”, though – near every program in the country has a chipper young female assistant coach. My question is, how do we get more women to stay in coaching and climb the ladder?

I do take pride in being a woman coaching both men and women. Every year when we go to pick up our gear at nationals, somebody assumes that I’m not the men’s coach. So I’m aware of the stereotype.

I love what I do and am confident in my abilities, which leads me to continue to wanting to coach. My husband has been incredibly supportive of my job and has changed his career path to allow our family to stay at Middlebury, which is a great place to raise kids (I have two boys, 15 and 9). The college and administration gives us tremendous support, which fosters the enjoyment of what we do and allows us to be successful…

As far as longevity, as long as I have the energy, passion, drive and confidence, I will continue to coach. Once one of those begins to die down, then I would think another person would be better suited to coach the team—as the athletes deserve all of those elements in a coach. I look at someone like Chris Daymont as a female coach who’s been around for a while and still has that drive and passion.

Q: Is a hot dog a sandwich?

A: No! Oh, that’s a no-brainer, the easiest question you’ve asked me. No. For it to be a sandwich, there has to be two separate pieces of bread.

Q: So a hoagie isn’t a sandwich, then?

A: That kind of shoots a hole in my argument. Hmm. Well, I will say that Hoagie Haven [ed. note: Go on.] in Princeton is the main reason we run at those Princeton meets outdoors.

1. Wilkerson’s NESCAC rival Farwell has been the men’s cross country coach at Williams for 36 years, but only started coaching the women in 2000. Similarly, Martin has coached the women at Adams for 27 years and the men for 20. (Back to story)