When Gig Harbor High School grad Mackenzie Nelson was first contacted by a track coach from a small college in Minnesota, her first reaction was something along the lines of: Thanks, but no thanks.
“I told my parents, and said ‘No, I don’t want to go to Minnesota,’” Nelson said, with a laugh.
But her parents encouraged her to fill out their questionnaire for the Division-III school, a small, private Christian college in St. Bonifacius, near the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.
“I ended up applying, getting accepted and then visited,” Nelson.
It was love at first sight.
“Just the feeling I got from walking around the campus, it seemed really homey,” Nelson said. “It’s a really small Christian school. We really emphasize community. Ours really emphasized coming together and growing in relationship with the Lord and with others. I didn’t want to be separated by my faith. It was really encouraging.”
Turns out, that Minnesota hospitality legend might just be true.
“Minnesota nice is very real,” Nelson said. “The people here are really encouraging.”
Nelson, now in her sophomore year, blossomed as a runner, competing in cross country and indoor and outdoor track. She’s already the school record holder in multiple sports.
In cross country, she holds the school record in the 6,000-meter race. In indoor track, she holds the records in the 3,000-meter and as a member of the 4x400 relays. And in outdoor track, she holds the records in the 1,500- and 5,000-meter races.
“It’s exciting and it means my hard work has paid off,” Nelson said. “But to me, it’s more about how my teammates have encouraged and supported me. I couldn’t do anything without their support. It’s a group effort, making all of successful throughout the season.”
Being accepted by the community so quickly was a game-changer for Nelson.
“I came a day early here, people asked to come out to watch movies, go wherever,” Nelson said. “That, to me, was the most important part. To be immediately accepted, I think really helped me being able to go through transitioning into college classes and the workload.”
Nelson, who is working toward a nursing degree, is hoping to pay it forward with the younger athletes.
“As great as it is to get different records, I really just want to be able to help incoming students, be a supportive role model,” Nelson said. “That’s more important than personal successes. I’m excited to meet some younger girls. Just to make the team stronger.”
For some high school athletes, it can feel like anything short of participating in Division-I athletics isn’t worth it. Not so, says Nelson.
“There’s competition everywhere,” she said. “If you’re looking for competition, you can still find it here. It allows you to have the college-athlete experience, also allows you to do classes and get jobs, branch out and make different friends. It opens up a lot of possibilities. … I don’t think I would have been able to run at a D-I school. It’s been really life changing and encouraging for me.”