When the idea for a pre-season retirement celebration was brought up to 45-year Manitowoc Lincoln cross country coach Len Nikolai when he announced he would be retiring after this coming fall season, he wasn’t very receptive to the idea.
He’s glad he reconsidered.
On Saturday, countless former Lincoln cross country and track athletes visited their old stomping grounds as they gathered at the JFK Fieldhouse to honor the longtime coach. Nikolai coached the Ships’ track team from 1969-2001 and he began coaching the cross country team in 1968. During that time, Nikolai’s boys’ cross country teams won conference championships in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998 and 1999.
The ages of those in attendance ranged from the first batch of athletes Nikolai coached who are now in their 60s, to those who are young and the offspring of athletes whose lives Nikolai touched. There were people in attendance that Nikolai hadn’t seen in more than 40 years.
“A year from now I will be 68 and I always said when I couldn’t run with the (cross country) team anymore I’d give it up. I can still run with them, but every year it gets a bit slower,” Nikolai said. “I am passionate about cross country and I’ve always said cross country kids are the best in the world. I will miss that part I am sure. It’s just time for someone younger to take over.”
Nikolai’s three children were in attendance — his oldest and son Tim Nikolai, who lives in Oregon, Wis., his daughter and middle child, Melissa Nikolai, who lives in Park City, Utah, and his daughter and youngest child Heidi Nikolai-Sayles, who lives in Madison. Nikolai credited the trio with spreading the word of the celebration using social media outlets while admitting his wife of 46 years, Diane Nikolai, came up with the original idea.
“My wife, it was all her idea. At first I said no. Then I said OK we can do a little thing with the kids that are in town. Then little by little it grew,” Len Nikolai said. “Seven Saturdays in the fall each year I would be leaving at 6 a.m. and I’d be getting back at 4 p.m., and I did that for 45 years, so my wife pretty much raised the kids while I was with other people’s kids. She was always supportive, even after all these years.”
Nikolai will soon have some free time on his hands, though he intends to still substitute teach, something he has done ever since he retired from teaching at Lincoln in 2001.
“It is going to be different. What will I do on Saturdays? Maybe go and watch a cross country meet,” Nikolai joked. “I don’t want to sound vain, but every year it seemed someone would say ‘you can’t retire until my kid graduates.’ I thank them because it’s meant as a compliment. But at the same time, I’m not saying anyone can’t come along and that I’m irreplaceable.”
While many coaches, when they retire, will ride off into the sunset after making the announcement when the season ends, Nikolai said he decided to announce his retirement before this season began because he didn’t want his athletes to be caught off guard or to hear it from someone else without his confirmation first.
“I think I just wanted the kids who were on the team this year to know about it instead of one day just hearing about it,” Nikolai said.”It has always been a pleasure (coaching). Everyone out there is a winner. you can take last out of 200 but have run faster than ever and feel good about it. I am looking forward to another bunch of great kids this season giving it all they got. That’s all I ever ask for. Give it your all every day and good things will happen to you and to me that’s success.”