TERRE HAUTE —
Nikki Thiede won the two longest girls races at the Big Four high school track and field meet Saturday afternoon.
Those with a casual interest in Wabash Valley prep sports can be excused for wondering why that sentence is the lead for a newspaper story. The Terre Haute South senior, after all, was touted as a future distance running great from the time she became a Brave, maybe even earlier than that. And so she is.
The path from freshman phenom to senior star has been anything but smooth, however — literally, in a couple of unfortunate instances. Its route has been anything but direct. And the pain that’s been involved as the ordeal nears its completion isn’t something you’d wish on a friend.
What’s that tapping sound, you say? That’s Nikki’s fans, knocking on wood.
Ed Jarvis hadn’t been a cross country coach very long in the fall of 2010 when his South girls team reached the state finals with five freshmen — Sam Holmes, Katie Schmidt, Nicole Howe and Maddie Kerr in addition to Thiede — among the top seven runners.
The Braves placed 24th — and there are only 24 teams at the state finals — but Thiede was 34th individually, nine spots away from an all-state berth, and the future was bright.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘This is going to be really easy,’ ” he said with a rueful smile recently.
Anything but? Indeed.
By the spring of that year, Thiede had a pain in her shoulder, possibly growth related. She placed 22nd in the state championship meet, “but she came off the track bawling,” Jarvis recalls. It was a sight he would see again.
Sophomore cross country season? A promising start, but pain in her right foot kept getting progressively worse. The Braves improved to 23rd as a team at the state finals, but Thiede’s aching foot broke during the course of the meet — which didn’t keep her from finishing, in 77th place.
Sophomore track season? Another strong regular season, in which Thiede qualified for the state in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs. That nagging pain wouldn’t go completely away, however, and she was in tears again after finishing the shorter of those two races with a 20th-place finish at the state finals. Thiede was ready to back out of the 3,200, but the idea of completing the double had been a goal, and her 30th-place finish in the long race near the end of the meet was an encouraging sign.
Her junior year was an agonizing one, however. Despite every alternative training idea, Thiede could never get healthy — and never stopped trying. South placed 22nd at the state, improving another place, and it was Schmidt who crossed the finish line first for the team, with Thiede placing 124th. Track season was much the same story, and after running a leg of the 4x800 relay at the Metropolitan Interscholastic Conference meet, Thiede was through for the season.
“Through all of this, she never missed a practice except to go to the doctor,” Jarvis points out. “She was down, but she was never depressed, and she was still a leader all the time. … She always wanted to be there for her teammates, and her teammates learned to step up for her. That’s what makes this senior group so special.”
Diagnoses? Thiede has heard a lot of them.
“[Doctors] thought [the painful right foot] might be plantar fascitis or tendinitis, and after it broke at the state [cross country meet] they decided it had probably been a stress fracture,” she recalled. “I probably came back too early, and then I had tarsal tunnel syndrome [a nerve condition of the feet and ankles, like carpal tunnel syndrome for the wrist]. I had some cortisone shots, and that went away.”
Theide’s physical growth might also have been a factor, said Jarvis, pointing out she didn’t stop growing until the end of her junior year. A physical abnormality in the nagging foot was another theory at one time.
But as her senior year began, Thiede was again optimistic. Then she had a misstep in cross country practice — not once, but twice. She missed part of the season after the first injury, but was on her way back for postseason races.
“We held her out of the sectional meet, but she was better at the regional,” Jarvis said. “Then she had a bad step [practicing for the semistate] and tore a ligament in her ankle.”
Such a litany of pain and bad luck has caused more than one person to question why Thiede continues to run, she indicated, but quitting is literally not something she seems able to do.
“I’ve always liked to run,” she said. “When I’d be taking breaks [to rest or recuperate], I’d be ‘Oh great’ for a couple of days, but then I’d get to the point where I just had to go run … I get very frustrated when I don’t run. I yell at my mother a lot.”
And this story can still have a happy ending, which is why there was considerable rejoicing — and maybe some crossed fingers — after Thiede’s two wins Saturday.
“This [spring track season] has been awesome,” Jarvis said. “She’s close to getting back to her freshman times.”
“Hopefully I’ll get back to those times; hopefully better,” Thiede said. “Each meet [the times] have been dropping. Everything’s good right now.”
As those times continue to drop, Thiede could be in position to qualify for a third state track finals to go along with her three appearances in the state cross country meet.
Despite all her troubles, her legacy is still one of the all-time greats in her sport, both at her school and in the Wabash Valley, and the best could be still to come. In the fall she’ll be attending St. Joseph’s College, where coach Bill Massoels has told her he enjoys getting runners back to pre-injury form.
“It’s just a hard sport,” Jarvis says he’s learned.
It also teaches some lessons, Thiede says she’s learned.
“I’ve learned that I’m persistent,” she said. “I’ve learned I don’t like just giving up. I’ve learned I can tolerate pain pretty well and I’m not going to stop until I achieve what I want.”