It’s not very often the coach is still an elite athlete, but for King Philip Regional High School Cross Country coach Juli Nievergelt (pictured), that’s exactly the case. The 54-year old Norfolk resident is the head coach of the KP Cross Country Girls Team, works with the boys team, and still races in the biggest triathlons in the world.
This fall, both the coach and the team have put together very strong performances.
Most recently, Nievergelt finished 2nd in her age group at the Ironman World Championship, a grueling triathlon held in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii that covers more than 140 miles in a single day. The KP Girls Cross Country team also finished up its regular season with a record of 4-1, with the one blemish coming from Mansfield at the last dual-meet of the season. “The girls team is great,” Nievergelt says. “Small but mighty. They are a talented, motivated and a scrappy group.”
Mighty. Talented. Motivated. Words that easily can be used to describe the coach, too. Another word that can be used is inspirational. “Coach Juli's athletic pursuits and accomplishment are truly inspiring for not just myself but the team as a whole,” says team captain Gianna Bender. “Her accomplishments have made an impact on my training and performance. When I do not think I can go any farther or push any harder, I often think of Coach Juli's training and how much farther one's body can go.”
Senior Abby Seaberg agrees (pictured). “Her athletic pursuits definitely inspire everyone on the team and I think it is nice to know that she's not telling us to do anything she can't do herself,” she said. “It gives us a whole new level of respect for her and trust in her training.”
That thought process is exactly the message Nievergelt is trying to impart to the high school runners. “I think the lesson I try to convey with my own athletic pursuits is that we are capable of so much more than we think,” she says. “The human body is an amazing thing and I like to think of my training as a giant science project which gives me some good insight on how to train my team both physically and mentally.”
It’s this type of knowledge that Seaberg values. “[Nievergelt] has helped me on a personal level with some of my running issues and her knowledge about training and running in general is hard to beat since she's acquired it on such a intense experience,” she said. “She's given me advice on everything from eating right to racing strategy and I can't thank her enough for it.”
In her Ironman race, Nievergelt had the goal of setting a record for the 50-54 age group, but it wasn’t meant to be that day. “The conditions were very difficult,” she said.
During the swimming portion of the race the water was rough with big swells and a chop. Back on land, the wind had an impact on the cycling portion and run. Nievergelt remembers the wind being so strong it blew people sideways off the road. “There were some good tailwinds but very short lived. Much more head winds and cross winds. The bike ride was very hot as well,” she said. “The beginning of the run was hot and humid but it did sprinkle at mile 17 for a brief relief.”
Her performance was remarkable also because she was nursing an injury. “I had trouble with my left hip toward the end of my training and was not sure if I was going to be able to run the marathon,” she said. “Three days before the race it really flared up so I was advised to take ibuprofen to be able to run. In the end I was nauseous for the last 5 miles of the run and started vomiting 10 minutes after the finish.”
She was placed in the medical tent after the race to receive an IV to replenish fluids and was administered anti nausea medicine. “The nausea continued throughout the night but I am fine now and was really pleased to finish second and under 11 hours in those conditions,” she said. “It is an unforgiving race and very humbling. My time was only 6 minutes slower than my last race there in 2008.”
While Nievergelt pushed her body to its limits in Hawaii, her team was tracking her progress online, and the performance was thrilling her athletes. “Coach Juli's finish at the Ironman was exhilarating,” Bender said. “The whole team was following her progress throughout the day, and we could not believe how well our Coach from the small town of Norfolk was doing. To see her incredible results proved what extreme dedication and hard work can bring. I have been lucky enough to hear about her intense training throughout the past year, and to see her hard work come to fruition was incredible.”
Bender pointed to an example at this year’s Twilight Invitational in Barnstable held this past Saturday in how the team draws strength from their coach. “My teammates and I stood in a huddle before the gun went off before our race,” Bender said. “We told each other that what we were about to do was Coach Juli's kick in the Ironman, her final stretch; if we felt pain, we needed to remember that the pain really was not that much in comparison to what she has felt.”
The mutual admiration between coach and athletes is strong. Nievergelt speaks glowingly of the whole team and specifically about her seniors and up and coming talent. Throughout the season, the first girl to cross the finish line was consistently Seaberg, and right behind her was Bender and Olivia Weir, both also seniors. “Abby is super in the longer 5K races and Gianna and Olivia are nipping at her heels,” Nievergelt says.
Nievergelt also commends senior Emily Sullivan and freshman Nina Sitarski. “Emily Sullivan is a consistent standout and great team leader and we have a spectacular freshman girl Nina,” Nievergelt says. “I am very proud of them and love working with both the boys and girls teams." (Pictured among Mansfield runners left to right, Gianna Bender, Olivia Weir, Emily Sullivan and Nina Sitarski.)
And the team is very proud of its coach. “She sets such a strong picture of what one can accomplish at any age and continues to motivate us to become better and better,” Bender said.
Both the girls and boys cross country teams will complete in the Hockomock Championship Saturday, October 25, at Wrentham Developmental Center, 1:30 p.m.