Princeton senior Nikki Venema won the 50 free, 100 fly, and 100 free at the 2023 Women’s Ivy League Swimming and Diving Championships, earning the High Point Swimmer Award for the second time in her career. Her performance was all the more meaningful after the disappointment of the last two seasons: the first canceled altogether by the Ivy League; and the second, in which the Tigers finished outside of the top-three at the conference meet for the first time ever.
“Last year was a very, very tough year. We had the perfect storm of obstacles against us. About fifteen of us got COVID two weeks out from Ivies. I was one of them. We had to go through an intense isolation protocol from Princeton University and we were testing two to three times a week. It was stressful all around. Also, we were right in the middle of [the controversy] about the Ivy League, the NCAA, and transgender rules. We had meetings all the time; there was a lot of drama… it was a lot.”
Venema came to Princeton in the fall of 2019 and as a freshman at the 2020 Ivy League Championships, she won the 50/100/200 free and shared High Point Swimmer honors with her teammate Ellie Marquardt, who won the 500/1000/1650 free. As the pandemic raged through the United States the rest of the year, the Ivy League cancelled all fall and winter sports, so Venema, already enrolled at Princeton, had to sit out her sophomore season. Then came the 2021-22 season, with the world’s eyes on the Ivy League as it navigated the oft-politicized media frenzy that came with its embrace of transgender swimmers.
And as if the COVID protocols and external attention about the Ivy League’s last-minute rules clarification for transgender athletes weren’t enough, Venema was expected to provide leadership as a team captain. “From my freshman year, being a top performer on my team, and then having to go into a leadership position without really having a transitional sophomore year to get my bearings, there was a lot of pressure on me to lead my team. That was my first year being captain of our swim team. I felt a lot of pressure to perform. I wanted to do well for my team.”
Venema felt the weight of disappointment when Princeton finished fourth behind Harvard, Yale, and Penn at the 2022 Ivy League Championships. But rather than stay down, she made a vow to herself -and the team- to “put my head down and get back to the swimming I know and love.”
“I think a lot of it started with each person, individually, absorbing what had happened and feeling that loss from Ivies and making an individual change in each of our mindsets that we wanted to be better – for ourselves, for our teammates, and for the women who came before us. That summer I decided to put my head down and focus: getting in and out of the pool twice a day and pushing myself physically and mentally, but in the right way. I just committed myself to go all in on whatever it means for my senior year of swimming. It kind of leaves no room for excuses. I didn’t make any excuses this year. I wanted to put my best foot forward for my team. I wanted to be great, and I know my team wanted to be great. It’s a scary thing, it’s a vulnerable place to be as an athlete. Because if you go all in and that’s not good enough, then I’m not good enough. It’s very terrifying when you’re a collegiate athlete.
“I think our entire time adopted that mindset. ‘We’re going to go all in; we’re going to pursue greatness, whatever that means, for each and every one of us.’ We definitely had challenges along the way, but we never let that stray us from our goal: be great as individuals and be great as a team. We wanted to bring the legacy of greatness back to Princeton; it’s known for fast swimming and wonderful people, and that’s what I was leading my team into this year. I’m really grateful for my co-captains, and we also had a great incoming class of freshmen who were super excited to be here. We played off their energy, too.
“We worked incessantly on our morning swims this year. Getting up, racing in the mornings when we are tired, when we’ve had a super long week… Going into the Navy meet, I think I had the hardest two weeks of training that I’ve ever had in my life. But I can’t thank the coaches and the team enough to push me through those two weeks, because it helped me handle the four days of this meet, where there are ups and downs, and it’s so important to get into the A finals in the morning. It was so much fun to have five in the 50 free, painting the podium orange!”
Venema conceded, “Although 2021-22 was a painful year, it was a great growth experience. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I found my passion for the sport again. It put a fire under us not to be complacent. ‘Never let your guard down, never underestimate your opponent.’
“We welcome the competition. We want the Ivy League to become stronger as a conference. The history of Harvard-Yale-Princeton, and Penn, being the top performers is outdated, and it should be more equal across all eight schools. It was really nice to see that at Ivies this year. Columbia, Brown, Cornell, Penn, Dartmouth… it really pushed performance as a whole. It honestly made me have more fun and it pushed my team. It made us really want to win so badly, we had such strong will to win that we never let our foot off the gas.
“This meet was less about the swimming than the team culture we had established beforehand. It’s about resilience, it’s about grit, and it’s about getting up after you’ve been brutally beaten in the past year, but being hungry, and taking pride in who you are, in your craft, and wanting to be better for your teammates and yourself. And giving yourself a chance to be great.
“It’s hard coming from the Ivy League conference, especially from swimming. We’re not notoriously known for NCAA qualifiers and being the fastest conference in Division I, but I think that should change and I think that’s the attitude we’re adopting at Princeton. I truly think it’s pushing performance. The swimmers here are exhibiting the kind of passion that I don’t think Princeton has ever seen before and I’m super excited to see what is coming for this team. I won’t be on it anymore but I’m so grateful that I’m able to leave this team the way it is, and I know that people on the team, after I leave, are going to continue that legacy of greatness, and passion, and drive. Obviously, we’re going to have ups and downs, but that attitude about who we are and who we want to be will always be there. I’m excited to see the people that that type of energy attracts to Princeton. I can’t wait to be a screaming alum in the stands when I’m older, but I truly think it’s the culture that we’ve built over the past four years with Bret.”