March 11, 2013

From Greece to Worcester: A Springboard to Success



 Knees straight.

Body bent at the waist.

A strong push forward.

Limbs twisting.

After a series of rotations, arms jet forward and extend downward.

Gentle splash.


For Veronica Nikolaki, this is her routine. She feels right at home a meter or three above the new WPI pool, exploding upward and gracefully downward in perfect form. Having WPI feel safe and hospitable comes as an additional comfort for the freshman, whose actual home is 4,800 miles away in Greece.

Nikolaki has exploded onto the New England diving scene. The freshman phenom qualified for NCAA regionals in the one-meter dive before the calendar turned December.

“In the air, I am focused on how my body will react, not the landing,” she says. “I am doing much better than I thought I would be at this point.”

Fear of impacting the water is not a part of Nikolaki’s thoughts, even when tumbling quickly through the air and into the pool below. As someone who grew up a two-minute walk from the sea in her hometown just outside of Athens, the water is always a welcome sight.

Nikolaki’s real fear comes from the anticipation of pulling off a remarkable dive – a fiery competitiveness masked by a quiet and endearing persona committed to a team-first philosophy.

“After the first meet, it was interesting to see her reaction to the scores,” says WPI team coach Paul Bennett. “She didn’t worry about her own points. Her bigger concern was whether she gave enough points to help the team win. She is a beloved teammate and a fierce competitor, even if she seems a little reserved.”

“She is not one to hide in the corner during a meet,” says WPI diving coach Laura O’Tell. “She is focused and driven, but she is a great teammate above all else.”

Nikolaki sculpted her athleticism in the form of a gymnast an early age. She gained an appreciation for the exhilaration that came from jumping off tables and beds and landing with precision. Eventually, her rolls and tumbling through the air felt even more exciting over water, as she explored and embraced diving.

She learned of WPI from her parents’ friend John Maxouris, a soccer star inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame last year. With the combination of a competitive diving team and a biology/biotechnology major that could lead her to her dream career working with animals, WPI struck the perfect balance.swim diving

Being a freshman, however, is its own balancing act with school requirements, diving, acclimating to cooler New England weather, and finding enough time to Skype with friends and family back home. Adjusting to a whole new culture and dealing with all the requirements of an international student without family nearby is an additional mountain to climb. Handling challenges, however, is in her nature.

“Between academic expectations, the diving workload, and being an international student, I was concerned we might overload her at first,” says Bennett. “As it turns out, she is an even better student than a diver. And that’s saying something.”

Nikolaki expects to add more challenging dives on top of more challenging classes to push her to greater things. Completing a dream to work with animals after college? Her work ethic suggests, yes. NCAA nationals? Not out of reach. As an already accomplished freshman, her coaches think by the time she graduates, not much will extend beyond her reach.

“It’s evident she has loads of talent,” says Bennett. “She is improving dramatically. I don’t know if there is a ceiling for her.”


By Josh Farnsworth

Photo by Steven King