Getting ready for the Class A state cross-country championship as a ninth-grader in 2003, Nikki (Swenson) Paradis got some words from a legend from her hometown of Dawson: 13-time state champion and 2004 Olympian Carrie Tollefson.
“I think she was a volunteer coach at the Blake School then,” said Paradis, a 2007 Dawson-Boyd grad that ran for the Lac qui Parle Valley/D-B co-op. “She came up to me and said, ‘Hey Nikki, never be afraid to win.’”
Admittingly, the words didn’t immediately sink in.
“When she said that, I was like, OK, that’s ridiculous. I’m in ninth grade,” Paradis said.
That day, Paradis, who now lives in Alexandria and helps out with the distance running teams for the Cardinals, won the first of two cross-country state championships and the first of nine overall state titles for LQPV/D-B.
“That phrase has always stuck out to me,” Paradis said. “That encouragement I got not only from my coaches and my family, but from her and her family, and the support of the Dawson-Boyd and Lac qui Parle communities was absolutely fantastic.”
Looking to break through
In her formative years, Paradis found her love of distance running from her parents.
Her mother, Julie, ran track at then-Moorhead State. Her father, Mike, would joke about how Nikki got her middle-distance speed because he fooled around with running on the track before the baseball season got started.
“We grew up in the middle of the country and (mom) would go for runs a lot in the evenings,” Paradis said. “That was her time to herself, but there were times where we could go with and bike with her, which was always really fun.”
Showing a lot of promise as a seventh grader, LQPV/D-B head cross-country coach John Shurb didn’t want to rush Paradis onto the varsity for fear of putting too much pressure on her.
“You just recognized (Paradis’ ability) by her desire and her work ethic and what times she had been running, too,” Shurb said. “You start seeing her times and you’re like, ‘Huh, these are good.’ Then you question if they can handle the further distance and the mental part, too.”
Paradis nearly made state as a seventh-grader but got spiked early in the race, eventually getting stitches. As an eighth-grader, she qualified for state and finished in 28th place in what Paradis still calls to this day the most painful 4-kilometer race of her life.
“I ate very little the night before. Class A was in the morning and I think for breakfast, I had half a banana,” Paradis said. “And if you know the course, when you run out, 400 meters into the race, you run across these soccer fields and there’s these little bumps. They’re literally little bumps but they felt like huge mountains. I was completely out of energy even at that point. It did not go well at all. I made it bigger than what it was. … I learned a lot in that one race.”
Bringing home gold
After Tollefson’s encouraging words as a freshman, Paradis went on to win the Class A cross-country championship in 14 minutes, 28 seconds.
She would finish as the runner-up as a sophomore behind Kingsland/Spring Valley’s Nicole Calabrese (14:29.6 to 14:33.7) and as a junior to Holy Family Catholic’s Bria Wetsch (13:54.7 to 14:15.6).
Paradis credits Shurb with helping her keep a focused mind when she ran both in high school and in college with the University of Minnesota. With LQPV/D-B cross-country, Paradis was a six-time letterwinner, six-time all-Camden Conference, four-time Camden champion and a four-time section champion.
“One thing that Coach Shurb did so well for me, and I guess I didn’t realize it until I was running in college, is that he would tell us, ‘Let’s not let our highs get too high or our lows get too low,’” Paradis said. “That’s how he coached and that’s how I learned to go into races.”
Paradis won the 1,600-meter run as a freshman at the state track meet. At the National Sports Center in Blaine for the 2005 state championship meet in track and field as a sophomore, Paradis was with senior Amanda Trost as LQPV/D-B’s lone athletes.
Over two days, Paradis won the 400 (58.08) and 1,600 (4:56.92) while placing second in the 3,200 (19:59.24). Trost ended up winning the triple jump to go with a third-place finish in the long jump.
With a combined score of 54 points, LQPV/D-B won the Class A girls team championship with just two athletes competing.
“That still kind of gives me goosebumps,” said LQPV/D-B head girls track and field coach Sheri Hansen.
Paradis added, “We honestly had the perfect weekend and everything lined up how it needed to be. I don’t think we could reenact how perfect that weekend was. All the stars lined up.”
Even the official handing out medals did a double-take.
“Afterwards, when it was announced that they won, Nikki and Amanda went to the podium and the lady said, ‘Well, you need to bring your whole team,’” Hansen said. “The girls said, ‘We are the team.’ She just kind of looked at ‘em. It was just awesome.”
As a junior, Paradis grabbed the 800 championship (2:12.08) and finished as the runner-up in the 1,600 (4:53.67). But Paradis had more in store for her senior year.
A dominant finale
Like the pressure of her eighth-grade trip to state cross-country, Paradis was stressed. But it was much different this time.
Instead of the unknown, it was the weight of expectations. A week before the state championship, she had committed to the University of Minnesota.
“I ideally wanted to tell (then-Gophers coach Gary Wilson) after the state meet but he decided to come to the section meet and asked, ‘Hey, are you coming?’ So I verbally committed at the section meet,” Paradis said. “(The state race) was another one where I made a mountain out of a molehill. Physically, I was in the best shape of my life but mentally, there was a lot on the line.”
Paradis wasn’t the only LQPV/D-B runner this time. For the second straight year, the team qualified for state, which helped lighten the mood.
Helping her team to a sixth-place finish, Paradis bookended her prep cross-country career with another Class A state championship in a time of 14:23.6.
“You always dream about what would be the perfect ending, and to me, that was the perfect ending,” Paradis said. “Mentally, that was a struggle, but I learned a ton from that and that just made the rest of my senior year more fun because I realized that when you make things harder than they need to be, they’re less enjoyable.”
With that perspective, the state track meet in the spring was more relaxing. Paradis went a perfect 3-for-3 over the two days, winning the 400 (57.01); 1,600 (4:58.57); and 3,200 (11:00.77).
“It was really rewarding because she worked every single day and never cut on a practice,” Hansen said. “To see the results for her when she’s getting those awards and still congratulating every other athlete that’s competing… just a humble, excellent kid.”
While at the University of Minnesota, Paradis was a captain for the 2009 and 2010 cross-country teams while being a part of four Big Ten Conference championship squads (cross-country: 2007-08; indoor track: 2008-09).
Today, Paradis is raising a family in Alexandria, the hometown of her husband, Drew. Both former distance runners at the University of Minnesota, the couple have a 2-year-old son, Isaac, and just welcomed another baby to the family, Micah, who was born on June 13.
Nikki has also gone into coaching, serving as an assistant for the Alexandria track and field team and as a volunteer coach for the cross-country squad.
“We moved up here in 2016 and I kind of volunteered and showed up to practices for cross-country and track for a little while,” Nikki said. “Honestly, I kind of rode the shirttails of Mark Nelsen, who used to be the head cross-country and track coach at Alexandria. Drew and him still have a great relationship and I got to know him. I got to help a little bit when he was an assistant coach. Then when he retired from coaching, a position opened up so I applied there.”
Like her mom and her after-dinner runs helped spark her interest in running, and like how Tollefson's words rang throughout her running career, Paradis’ impact is still felt in the LQPV/D-B cross-country program. Since she graduated, the LQPV/D-B girls have been at the state cross-country meet seven times (2007, 2013-18), placing as high as second in 2013.
“I started in ‘97 and Nikki was the first person I had get to state,” Shurb said. “Kids saw what she could do with some success and some work. She’s the person that helped get us to the next level. And she would be around; she would always come back and talk to kids and we’d see her run down at the U of M.
“She started this whole run with this girls program, I think, with what she’s done and because kids know who she is. She’s a down-to-earth person that’s willing to work with people and that’s why she’s coaching.”