‘The perfect example’
Paige Nielsen, the youngest of four children, was raised by her single mother, Kathy, in a humble house in Lincoln, Neb.
Kathy Nielsen instilled a good work ethic and the importance of academics in her children. Paige was on the honor roll all four years in high school and on the ACC Academic Honor Roll every year at UNC.
Her mother set the example for this dedication when she put herself through college while raising four kids. But the greatest thing she gave her daughter was the ability to dream.
“(My mom) was like, ‘You can literally do anything you put your mind to, Paige,’” Paige said.
“And she was the perfect example of it.”
Paige took this advice to heart — cheerleading and playing basketball, volleyball and soccer as a child. When she entered eighth grade and it came time to focus on one sport, though, her mom’s intuition pushed her in one direction in particular.
“Even if I wasn’t always sure about soccer, my mom was always sure,” Paige said. “She kind of led me in that direction of Carolina, and hopefully that would get me to play pro soccer one day.”
She chose soccer and never looked back. Every time she stepped onto the pitch, she had a smile on her face and her mom’s encouraging words ringing in her ears.
This enthusiasm led Paige to the North Carolina girls’ soccer summer camp in eighth grade, where Coach Anson Dorrance recognized her as a talented and versatile player.
She had followed the program avidly as a child. Despite already having a standing offer to play
soccer at Nebraska, she had her sights on UNC.
When the time came, the Tar Heels did not have a scholarship offer available, but Paige committed to play for Dorrance as a walk-on anyway.
Coming to North Carolina meant leaving her family, but it also meant escaping Nebraska, an accomplishment she said can inspire younger generations.
“To get out of Nebraska is huge for any person, let alone a soccer player, so a lot of little kids have followed me throughout the years,” she said.
Although she played an attacking midfielder role during high school, club soccer and her first three seasons at UNC, Paige transitioned to a defensive role this past offseason because her team needed help on the back end.
After tying for the team lead in goals scored in 2014, Paige was named the defensive MVP of the Duke Nike Classic a week ago and has anchored a Tar Heel defense that has surrendered only two goals in six matches.
“Another excellent leadership quality is to lead verbally, and that’s absolutely critical if you are going to play in the defense,” Dorrance said. “What’s happening with Paige is she is evolving in this role.”
“She hadn’t played in the back before,” he said, “but I think her leadership qualities verbally in the back are starting to emerge.”
Now starting at centerback for a UNC team with national championship hopes, Paige hopes to again wow the Nebraska crowd she once impressed in high school.
“There are going to be a lot of people (at tonight’s game),” she said.
But one person will be missing from the crowd: Kathy Nielsen.
Doctors diagnosed Kathy Nielsen with lymphoma when Paige was 14. After the player’s mother beat the disease a first time, it returned in fall 2014.
In June, she died from stage 4 lymphoma.
Paige said her mother continued to encourage, support and inspire everyone around her throughout her battle.
“She went through cancer and still was able to put three kids through college at the same time — my older siblings — and work,” Paige said. “She was literally everything.”
Through the heartbreak, Paige has continued to live up to the standards her mother set.
In December, Paige — who is a double major in business administration and biology — was awarded the Eve Carson Scholarship. She plans on using some of the money from the scholarship to raise awareness for rare cancers.
She has also found comfort in her Tar Heel family. Many of her teammates, former and current, took to social media to support Paige and her family, using the hashtag #TeamKathy.
The seniors of the 2014 team took it to another level. They surprised Paige with a pair of customized cleats bearing one word: Kathy.
It’s a reminder of the strength and bond of her Tar Heel family.
“It helps she has such a strong support system here in our team,” senior midfielder Katie Bowen said. “I think that is keeping her strong and focused. She wants to win it for her mom, and we are all on board with her. We are all 100 percent Team Kathy.”
In what could not have been orchestrated more perfectly, the customized cleats arrived in time for Paige to wear them for her homecoming in Lincoln today.
She plans to walk onto the field with the cleats in hand, a reminder that her mom is still with her, pushing her to greatness.
“(My team) knows that’s who I’ve played for all these years, and that is what has driven my successes as an individual,” she said.
“I think that is really just a testament to our family as a Carolina team.”
With her mom’s name on her cleats and her family and friends in the stands, Paige will take the field tonight to play for the one who made it all possible.
Forever a Tar Heel. Forever Team Kathy.