This feature appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on March 11, 2005.
NAU’s Ida Nilsson wraps up a spectacular collegiate career today, and she’ll look to the future with Olympic gold on her mind
By ED ODEVEN
“Excellence is the gradual result of always striving to do better.” — Pat Riley
One characteristic has defined Ida Nilsson’s four years as a Northern Arizona running standout: excellence.
Nilsson arrived in Flagstaff in 2001 with impressive credentials, including two top-20 finishes at the European Cross Country Championships as a high school harrier.
Four years and dozens of first-place finishes later, Nilsson is competing in her final collegiate race. She’ll toe the line for tonight’s 5,000-meter race at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., with a chance to earn a remarkable 11th All-American honor.
As humble as she is talented, Nilsson, doesn’t get caught up talking about all that she’s accomplished. Still, she acknowledges the significance of today’s race.
“I don’t think it feels any different because it’s the last race,” the 24-year-old said before Wednesday’s practice. “But it’ll probably be kind of weird to have the last race for NAU because I’ve done a lot of fun races in the U.S.”
Today, Nilsson is competing in the 5,000, commonly called the 5K, for the first time on the national stage indoors.
New challenges have never been a problem for Nilsson, though.
“The 5K is kind of new for me. … I’ve done the 3K in the years before. But I think something new is exciting,” she said, smiling.
That sentiment reminds one of Welsh singer Jem’s optimistic lyrics on her debut album — “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.”
With Nilsson, that’ll mean many more chances to demonstrate her commitment to excellence.
In May, Nilsson will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. She plans to return to Sweden in June and possibly return to school to earn a master’s degree.
In the immediate future, she’s focused on preparing for the 2005 IAAF World Championships, which will be held Aug. 6-14 in Helsinki, Finland.
“That’s what you dream of when you’re younger,” said Nilsson, who hails from Kalmar, Sweden, a city on the nation’s southeastern coast with a well-preserved ancient castle.
Growing up on Sweden’s picturesque Baltic coast, running was a daily activity for Nilsson. She began training seriously at an early age, when she was 10, at a local athletic club.
She attended the same high school, Katedral Skolan, as NAU teammate Henrik Ahnstrom, another national championship qualifier.
Both have matured as individuals and athletes in that time, and Nilsson has accomplished all she can accomplish as a collegiate athlete.
Her future, Ahnstrom said, now looks as bright as the 24-hour summer days of sunlight in Northern Scandinavia.
“She’s improved a lot, and it was a big step when she came and left high school and went to college,” Ahnstrom said. “And now, it’s the next step and she’s ready to take it. She’s at the level.”
In this week’s IAAF world rankings, Nilsson is No. 6 in the 3,000 steeplechase, an event that will make its Olympic debut for females at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.
“She’s ready to move on, for sure, and her mind’s in it,” said Ahnstrom, one of Nilsson’s closest friends. “She wants to do it. I think that’s the most important part. She’s run fast enough; she’s already qualified for the world championships in the steeplechase, for example. She’s going to do well.”
Until then, Nilsson will stick to what’s gotten her this far: train, train and train some more.
“I’m in pretty good shape, not, like, super, but it’s OK,” she said. “Hopefully, it’ll be better in the summer.”
Winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase at last year’s NCAA outdoor meet was Nilsson’s No. 1 race as a collegiate athlete. She took second in the race the previous two years.
This summer, as she heads back to Europe, with what would already be a lifetime supply of achievements for most athletes, Nilsson has a chance to create a new batch of special memories, memories closer to home.
“It’s kind of nice to be home and then family can come and watch, but otherwise it’s more exciting to go away further,” said Nilsson, whose younger sister, Johanna, a junior, has also won a national title, the indoor mile at the 2003 NCAA meet. “But I think it’ll be a good meet because Finnish people really do (enjoy) track and field.”
Russian Gulnara Samitova, the world record-holder, is the woman to beat in the 3,000 steeple, but Nilsson has never been one to walk — or run — away from challenges.
“(We’ll just) see what happens,” Nilsson said. “You never know. Take one year at a time and see how fast you have to run.”
In the next three years, as the world prepares for the Beijing Summer Games, Nilsson said she expects the pool of talent in the steeplechase to keep improving. That, of course, should push her to improve as well.
“I think until then it’ll be at a really good, high level … because people will really have time to train,” said Nilsson, who will continue running the 1,500 and 5K along with her specialty event.
Looking back on Nilsson’s four years as a Lumberjack, NAU coach J.W. Hardy, a longtime assistant before becoming the head coach last summer, said she has lived up to advanced billing — and then some.
“Certainly … we knew exactly what we were getting,” he said, pausing to commend her on her strong work in the classroom. “We knew we had a kid who was going to be at the top of the nation in just about everything that she did.”
Four years of excellence, plain and simple.
So what does the future hold for NAU’s Swedish star?
“Ida is a fierce competitor,” Hardy said. “I can see an Olympic gold medal in her future. That’s definitely something that I think is achievable for her.”