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Nicole Greene’s confidence ‘never in doubt’: Sophomore standout succeeds on and off the track

Nicole Greene, a sophomore and two-time NCAA championship-qualifier, practices for the high jump. She has made the Dean’s List each of her three semesters at UNC.

Nicole Greene, a sophomore and two-time NCAA championship-qualifier, practices for the high jump. She has made the Dean’s List each of her three semesters at UNC.

A few cautious bounds, a skip and a hop, a full on sprint and then she’s off the ground. There goes Nicole Greene, repeating her ritualistic run-up to the high jump that she's bounded through a thousand times.

She hangs suspended, manipulating every muscle in her body to turn over onto her back in mid-air, as she glides a few inches over the bar. She lands softly on the foam pit and bounces immediately up. Looking to her coach, she signals: Raise the bar.

Nicole will clear that next height, and then the one after it. She believes she can, and you should, too.

“She has the perfect balance between cocky and confident,” sophomore teammate Tish Dixon said.

Nicole, a sophomore from Florida, has warranted that confidence with her well-rounded resume. The two-time NCAA championship-qualifier has also made Dean's List in each of her three semesters at the University. North Carolina sports psychologist Elizabeth Hedgpeth sees an intersection between Nicole’s convictions as an athlete and as an academic.

“Surgeons are not always right,” Hedgpeth said, "but they're never in doubt. She has that mentality. She's not cocky; she's bright and she's intellectually inquisitive.”

The analogy is apt, as Nicole is studying with plans to go to medical school. Her confidence gives her an edge.

Jumps coach Nicole Hudson, a former UNC high jumper herself, was the first at the University to clear the six-foot mark — there had only been six ever in school history. Now Nicole is the seventh to surmount that fabled height. Hudson sees lion-heartedness in the girl she calls the “Simba” to her “Mufasa.”

Hudson first noticed the assuredness in a meet Nicole’s first year.

The race organizers had recruited Olympic talent to bolster the competition. Hudson went to watch Nicole’s jumps and realized her athlete was keeping pace with Olympic bronze-medalist heptathlete Brianne Theisen Eaton.

“For you to duke it out with an Olympic medalist, to me that showed that this girl is fearless,” Hudson said. “You win some, you lose some. But she’s like, ‘I'm gonna go jump for jump with an Olympian.’”

That caliber of competition is exactly who Nicole wants to face — but she's not content with losing to anyone.

“This year she went up against another Olympian (Jeanelle Scheper) at Clemson,” Hudson said. 

"And beat her."

***

On Friday night, Nicole will represent UNC as the track and field team’s only competitor at the indoor national championships in College Station, Texas. But on Thursday morning, Nicole's mind was far from the jump pit.

Before she could vie for a national title, she had to take her analytical chemistry and calculus midterms.

This weekend is a perfect example of how Nicole’s career is a marriage between academic and athletic excellence.

That’s what she looked for in her college selection process.

“I wanted to be a doctor so badly,” Nicole said. “I was looking for a school that was good at academics and athletics, and I think Carolina was the best place for that.”

Hudson could see Nicole had an advanced idea of “the big picture.” On her official recruiting visit, Hudson sent Nicole and her parents — themselves both medical doctors — on a tour of UNC hospitals with a department chair and a surgeon.

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The family was impressed.

“Most of the coaches who ran into Nicole were more concerned about the things that they could do to make her jump higher,” Trevor Greene, Nicole’s father, said. “Whereas Coach Hudson was more concerned with her as a person.”

Coach Hudson has fulfilled the promise to accommodate Nicole’s ambition as a student at a prestigious university and as a world-class athlete. This past summer, Hudson set Nicole up with a summer internship shadowing a doctor while also training her for the USATF Junior Championships.

“She’s living her dream,” Trevor said. “Coach (Harlis) Meaders and Coach Hudson have gone out of their way to make sure that she has all of the resources around her, both athletically and academically, to support her dreams.”

***

“People think that I just do this," Nicole said. "But I don’t think anyone sees all of the sacrifices that I had to make, or all of the things that I couldn't do."

Don’t for a second think the transition of balancing both halves of being a student-athlete was always easy for Nicole. She graduated high school as a four-year 4.0 student, but also with multiple high school national titles.

Coach Hudson had seen athletes with piles of high school accolades who couldn’t weather the inevitable backslide that comes with the transition to college. Hudson knows it's possible because she's seen it happen before — and for as high of a flier as Nicole was in high school, she was all the more at risk of crash landing her first year in Chapel Hill.

“You’re dealing with a young lady who, her whole senior year (of high school), she never lost,” Hudson said. “Then she goes through her whole freshman year and she doesn’t (hardly) win a meet.”

“But (Nicole) said, ‘I'm learning, it’s going to get better. I'm going to believe in the process.’”

That process would envelope much of her life from then on, forcing her to manage her time and make sacrifices.

“She’s probably the only person I know who never goes out, "Dixon said. "She goes out maybe twice per semester..."

Nicole meticulously scheduled her days, skipped social opportunities and split her spare time between the classroom and the weight room.

But it was worth it — the process worked. She qualified individually for indoor nationals as a first-year, something unheard of in Hudson's five years as a coach at UNC.

And then in the summer, Nicole got back to her dominant ways.

She was the highest jumper at the 2016 USATF Junior National Championships. The win qualified her to represent Team USA at the junior world championships in Poland.

“That was a very seminal moment for her,” Trevor said. “One of the defining moments of her jumping career.”

***

A high jumper's work can be solitary.

“The event itself is very singular,” Trevor said. “You live or die on your own sword.”

Again and again, those around Nicole identify her biggest strength as her ability to focus. She can go into herself, quiet her mind and handle whatever task is at hand. And that’s all it comes down to.

“Honestly for high jump, its only you and the bar,” Nicole said. “You can’t help what anyone else does.”

But that success, that ability to detach her mind if even for only a moment, comes with a cost.

“I see her sometimes and she’s just in her own zone,” first-year teammate McKinley McNeill said.

What goes on in that zone is a puzzle those around her cannot solve. Maintaining her competitive edge often requires focus that leads Nicole to a kind of remoteness.

“If you are superior, you're always going to be isolated,” Hedgpeth said. “Her passions are her studies and her jumping. She doesn't really need anything else. And there'll be a time when she does, but she'll be rid of one or the other.”

The moments of intensity don't mean Nicole isn’t still an integral part of her team. Her concentrated excellence is one of the many traits that led the team to name her one of its captains as a sophomore.

“I really respect that she has the focus, and every time she comes to practice, she knows exactly what she wants to get out of the workout,” McNeil said. “We just all follow.”

Her teammates know the drill. By now, Nicole has a routine in everything she does. She consistently establishes new heights, both academically and athletically.

And every time she lands, expect her to look over, daring you: Raise the bar.

@James_Tatter

sports@dailytarheel.com