The Ottumwa Courier


May 9, 2012

Chance encounters change coach’s life

OTTUMWA — Keep your eyes open because change can come at anytime.

Jim Nickerson would know. If it wasn’t for a tap on the shoulder — well, two taps to be exact — that he received during his junior year in college, the long-time Ottumwa boys track and field coach’s life may have gone in an entirely different direction.

In fact, he may have never coached at all. Yet, true to his motto, Nickerson had his eyes open when two previously invisible doors swung open for him.

It was his junior year in college, and Nickerson had just transferred to Northeast Missouri State University — now Truman State University — from Iowa Western Community College, where he had played baseball and basketball for two years.

Although arm problems and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome had led to a disappointing sophomore baseball season at Iowa Western, Nickerson wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Baseball, after all, was his first love.

Before his injury-plagued sophomore season, Nickerson was a force to be reckoned with on the pitcher’s mound. He said he never lost a game his freshman season at Iowa Western.

So with his arm mostly healed, he headed to Kirksville, Mo., with plans to try and make Northeast Missouri State’s baseball team as a walk-on.

“I was still baseball-minded,” he said.

But because of fate or chance, Nickerson’s life was about to take an unexpected turn. While working out at the college’s basketball arena one day, he received one of those taps on the shoulder that would end up changing his life.

The man doing the tapping turned out to be Ken Gardner, the college’s track and field coach who — from reading the Ottumwa Courier — knew Nickerson had run track and field at Ottumwa High School.

Gardner asked him if he had thought about returning to the sport. Indeed, it had been in the back of his mind, Nickerson said.

The coach gave Nickerson a tryout of sorts, which featured him having to keep pace with one of the track team’s fastest runners.

“I stayed right on his heels,” Nickerson said.

Because of his impressive performance, he got invited to join the team, which he accepted. And just like that his baseball career was over and his track and field career had been reborn.

Keep your eyes open, because change can come anytime.

Nickerson went on to become part of the squad’s 4x400 relay team — that included future Olympic Gold Medalist Ray Armstead — which ended up finishing third in the nation that season.

During that same year, the coach had another unexpected encounter at the sports arena. This meeting planted the first seeds that would eventually blossom into a long coaching and teaching career. This time the person tapping on Nickerson’s shoulder ended up being the head of the physical education department at Northeast Missouri State. 

It turned out the man was trying to recruit people to take physical education courses, Nickerson said. The Bulldog coach said he had never given coaching any thought before he heard the man’s pitch — he came to Northeast Missouri planning to major in business.

“He just put it in my mind, you know,” Nickerson said.

But the more he thought about some of his old high school teachers, the more teaching and coaching appealed to him. And eventually he decided to major in physical education.

“I guess that was my destiny,” Nickerson said.

Keep your eyes open because change can come at any time.

The veteran coach has coached for 31 years now; 24 of them at Ottumwa High. Before he became the head track coach of the Bulldogs, Nickerson coached track and field, football and basketball at Evans Middle School.

So what makes Nickerson return to coach year after year? The answer is simple: helping young athletes.

“When you can actually help another person reach their goals, it’s hard to put into words — it just gives you a good feeling inside to know you have helped another person get what they wanted out of their sports career,” Nickerson said.

The boys track and field team this year has provided him with a reminder of why he’s so passionate about what he does.

“What keeps me coming back is people that I meet who have a work ethic like those guys do,” Nickerson said. “I will miss those guys.”

One person who helped shape Nickerson’s coaching style is his former Ottumwa track and field coach Bob Warren.

“I got to run for a guy who is my role model,” he said. “I’ve used his philosophy during my career.”

When he’s not coaching, Nickerson opts to lift weights — he lifts twice a week — and spend time with his family: his wife, Stephanie, and three daughters, Kelsey, Jami and Kacy.

All three of his daughters are involved in athletics and he and Stephanie love to watch them in action. The couple, however, also want their children to learn some valuable life lessons through the medium of sports.

“We want them to learn the true meaning of hard work and sacrifice like we learned from our coaches,” Nickerson said.

So what’s next for Nickerson?

Whatever it is, one thing is for sure: He will face it with his eyes wide open.

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