30 Million Yards and Counting

Senior Paula Nolte in the breaststroke. Photo by Lynne Powe

In any sport, mental strength is just as important as physical prowess. For swimmers, this is especially true considering a substantial amount of time is spent underwater, in individual lanes, allowing for hours of solitary thought to focus on the task at hand. For Hope College senior Paula Nolte of Elmhurst, Illinois (York Community HS), time spent in deep thought has never been an issue: in fact, she thrives on it. 

MIAA Swimming and Diving Championship Website

As a three-time defending MIAA champion in the 200-yard breaststroke, an esteemed student-researcher, a soon-to-be published author, and an impending graduate with a biology major and chemistry minor, Nolte has shown that it’s possible to be extremely successful in both academics and athletics. Just after her sophomore year, during the summer of 2018, she completed an internship through the National Science Foundation working alongside Dr. Frank Smith at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. The project studied gut gene expression during embryonic development in tardigrades (a microscopic organism that’s closely related to arthropods, or insects) as part of Smith’s ongoing research in the evolutionary development field. 

When her research with Dr. Frank Smith came to a close, Nolte immediately took on a new challenge, participating in biology research at Hope throughout her junior year into the summer of 2019. She worked in the lab of Dr. Phillip Rivera, associate professor of biology, investigating ways in which longer space flight could potentially impact astronauts by simulating space radiation using the Pelletron accelerator in the physics lab. The project studied how radiation exposure would impact cognition and behavior in mice. Now due to her research in both Dr. Smith’s and Dr. Rivera’s labs, manuscripts are in the works, making Nolte an undergraduate published author.

Although highly involved and successful student-athlete, it has not been easy for Nolte. Her sophomore and junior years were very difficult, leading her to consider ending her swimming career. With multiple science classes, research, her responsibilities as a teaching assistant (TA), and the rigors of collegiate swimming, the pace of life became overwhelming. Coincidentally, her exercise-induced asthma, diagnosed when she was a child, reappeared. Nolte took two summers off from training to reset and reconsider her life path.

Nolte, center, cheers on her Hope teammates. Photo by Steven Herppich

What helped her to find her way? In the summer of 2019, prior to her senior year, she chose to participate in one of Hope’s SEED (Sport Evangelism to Equip Disciples) trips to the Dominican Republic. Hope partners with Sawyer Products, a company that specializes in outdoor protection supplies (water filtration being one of them) to make SEED possible. With funds provided by Sawyer, groups of student-athletes travel to five global locations to spread God’s word through service and play. The trip to the DR changed Nolte’s personal and career trajectory. “There is a new part of me that I definitely did not think I would be discovering at this point in my life,” she says. “This has been a strange year, but a good one.” 

No longer enthralled with lab work, Nolte now has a new interest in the realm of public health. This change in career path means long research hours are no longer required and has decreased her workload significantly. With a lighter schedule, Nolte has been able to refocus on one of the most important things in her life: swimming.

Coach Jake Taber says, “Paula is just incredibly bright and highly capable, and her involvement in the things that she’s done in the research is inspiring. But when you get to know her as an athlete, she’s still so analytical. She always wants to know what her stroke looks like; she talks about how it feels, how it’s setting up, where her timing is, if that’s where it should be. I feel like she is somebody that understands the sport better than most.” 

Understanding the sport on a deeper level has helped to develop her stroke and make her an even greater threat in the pool. In this MIAA Championship week, Nolte is set to defend her title as a three-time champ in the 200-yard breaststroke.

Regarding the future, Nolte hopes “to be working as an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and monitoring infectious disease both abroad and in the U.S., or working as a public health officer, helping countries who experienced natural disasters and the health issues that go along with those.”  

With her sharp intellect and incredible work ethic, the doors of opportunity for Nolte appear wide open. In the over 30 million yards that Nolte has estimated she has swam in her lifetime, she has silently allowed her mind to explore and analyze the possibilities that lie ahead.

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