Penn State swimmer and Schreyer Scholar grateful for return to competition

Jeff Rice
February 17, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — All told, Nikolette Nolte was in the water for less than 33 seconds, covering two lengths of the pool. But for the Penn State swimmer and Schreyer Honors Scholar, her leg of the 200 medley relay race at Northwestern represented the latest stretch of a much longer journey.

The Nittany Lions’ Jan. 22 meet in Evanston, Illinois, was Nolte’s first collegiate race, coming more than two years after she enrolled at Penn State and joined the team and 23 months since she underwent a bone marrow transplant as part of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“Just getting up on that block and racing was a feeling I have missed so much. Getting to experience that again was truly incredible,” said Nolte, who also raced in the 100-yard breaststroke during the meet. “You can try to mimic a race or meet in practice, but it’s not the same. You don’t have other teams, officials, hearing that whistle blown to take your mark. It’s all completely different, and that adrenalin rush is different too.

"I still get chills thinking about it," she said.

Nolte, of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with lymphoma as a junior in high school. After five months of chemotherapy, she was in remission, and began her first year at Penn State in August 2018. After just five weeks as a college student, though, she received the second diagnosis, this one requiring a more aggressive and exhausting treatment — her sister, Krystal, was the donor for the transplant —and setting up a much longer recovery that included a number of setbacks.

The journey back to the water started literally a step at a time, with Nolte’s mother, Melissa, helping her walk up and down the hallway of the hospital. Gradually, under the supervision of coaches, trainers and doctors, she began to rebuild her swimming endurance. She knows it is a work in progress.

“I am very thankful with how my recovery has been going and I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made, but I definitely have a long way to go,” Nolte said. “Where I was before was years of training and conditioning and endurance that was built up to that point, and the treatment that I went through not only stripped all of that away but even knocked my body down more than I could have ever imagined. It’s been tough for me sometimes, because the competitive side of me mentally struggles because I know what my body was able to do. I just don’t know what it can do now.”

Complicating matters was the COVID-19 pandemic, which placed restrictions on all NCAA swimmers when it came to practice time this fall. That turned out to be somewhat of a blessing for Nolte, who said she was able to get back into things at a more manageable pace than she might have in a normal competition cycle.

An outstanding student, Nolte has been able to readjust more quickly in the classroom, which she attributes partly to being able to re-take the courses she’d had to withdraw from.

“When you are forced to take a step back, from your classes and your athletics, you don’t realize how much you’re going to miss it,” Nolte said. “I missed the stress of taking a test, I missed studying, I missed being in class and asking questions, taking notes. Coming back, after going through everything, I have truly cherished and taken advantage of every opportunity I’ve been given and just really grateful that I’ve been able to sit in class and be able to study and have another class at my collegiate experience.”

The biobehavioral health major, who hopes to work in pediatric oncology and is planning to research either cancer or substance abuse for her honors thesis, said the amount of time she spent around doctors and nurses allowed her to learn the importance of being able to understand what patients are feeling or thinking.

“I have learned a lot about bedside manner and how important that is,” said Nolte. “I think it’s really important to establish a relationship with a patient that is based off of trust and honesty, and that is something that I’ve been incredibly grateful to have with all my doctors and nurses.

“It has motivated me even moreso to go into the medical field and give something back to the community that has given so much to me," she added.

Nolte has shown no evidence of disease since her final treatment. She is hoping to get the COVID-19 vaccine and she is continuing the gradual process of getting her other vaccinations after the treatment erased all of her immunities. Her team will wrap up its season at the Big Ten Swimming Championships in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Feb. 23-27. For Nolte and her family, it will be hard to top the meet in Evanston, but they have a different outlook on any meet these days.

“This is all kind of icing on the cake,” said her father, Kurt. “To put it in perspective, if she never swam again, as long as she was healthy, that’s all that really matters.”

About the Schreyer Honors College

The Schreyer Honors College promotes academic excellence with integrity, the building of a global perspective, and creation of opportunities for leadership and civic engagement. Schreyer Honors Scholars total nearly 2,000 students at University Park and 20 Commonwealth Campuses and represent 38 states and 27 countries. More than 15,000 Scholars have graduated with honors from Penn State since 1980.

  • Penn State swimmer Niki Nolte at THON 2020

    Penn State swimmer Niki Nolte speaks at THON 2020. The Schreyer Scholar took a year leave from classes and competition to recover from treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

    IMAGE: Penn State Athletics
Last Updated February 18, 2021