A Unique First Impression
April 14, 2009
By Larry Watts
She hails from the Land Down Under, but since her arrival in the United States four years ago, Hannah Nielsen has been at the top of the world in women's lacrosse.
First, there was the 2005 World Cup in Annapolis, Md. That is when the 17-year-old from Adelaide, Australia scored a goal as she and her Aussie mates defeated the United States 14-7 in the gold medal match.
That was only the beginning of Nielsen's run of success in the U.S. She joined up with the Northwestern University squad, fresh off its first NCAA championship, in January and the run has yet to stop three years later.
As the top-ranked Wildcats zero in on their drive for five, Nielsen is the odds-on favorite to win the Tewaaraton Trophy, the highest individual honor in the college game, for the second straight year. She currently holds the national record for career assists (187), recently surpassing the old standard held by fellow countryman Jen Adams, and she is now four points shy of matching Northwestern's all-time record for career points (349).
And to think, there was one brief moment during a World Cup match with the U.S. that Nielsen thought she had blown her chance at a Northwestern scholarship.
One of the leading players for the home team was Kelly Amonte Hiller, a former two-time national player of the year and three-time first team All-American at Maryland. But now Amonte Hiller was just starting to write a new chapter in her life as the head coach at Northwestern. And one of those recruits she had been exchanging e-mails with was Nielsen.
The World Cup provided the first time for Amonte Hiller and Nielsen to actually meet face to face. And what did Nielsen do at that meeting?
"I cracked her across the head with my stick," says Nielsen while desperately fighting to hold back the laughter. "If she got the center draw, it was my job to crash the middle and take her out with the ball. I hit her across the head, she went down and I got a yellow card (three-minute penalty).
"I didn't know what to think. I was this young 17-year-old and I had just hit the USA's best player in the head and she was trying to recruit me! As a kid, Kelly Amonte was one of those players I always heard about and was in awe of in the collegiate system because of how she had changed the game. But at least I stopped her from getting a fast break."
Two days after Australia won the World Cup, Nielsen met Amonte Hiller again -- in Evanston. Northwestern was one of five schools in hot pursuit of the 5-foot-5 Aussie standout.
"That little incident back in Annapolis wasn't even mentioned nor have we ever talked about it, but I think she has mentioned it in other interviews," Nielsen says. "The subject of beating the U.S. for the World Cup title has never come up either. Maybe she's saving all that for graduation."
During her trip to the United States for the World Cup, Nielsen was also able to visit the other primary schools on her college shopping list -- Maryland, Loyola (Md.) and Denver.
"Maryland had always been my dream school growing up," Nielsen says. "They won seven straight national titles and there was an Aussie pipeline, including Jen Adams, to the school. Jen had played at my same club (Brighton), she coached me (under-12s) and I had some friends on the Maryland team.
"And when I was being recruited, Jen was in her second year as an assistant coach at Denver and one of my best friends was on that team. I would have loved to have learned under Jen because she was a goddess to the Brighton kids."
But in the end, Northwestern was the surprise choice.
"I guess I just wanted to do something different, something the other Australians had never tried," she says. "In Australia, the only U.S. schools you really hear about are the Ivy schools because of the movies. But when I came to the States and mentioned Northwestern, everyone kept telling me what a great academic school it was. And when I came out here, Kelly really sold me on it.
"Kelly was just coming off her first national championship. I could see her work ethic and how she goes about coaching and playing. The facilities were amazing; you could see the school took great pride in the program. And the girls I met were fantastic."
Not only was Nielsen moving from the third-largest city (1 million) to the third-largest (2.8 million) in the U.S., the biggest shock awaited upon her arrival in January of 2006. January is in the summer in Australia while the harsh and freezing winds of Lake Michigan are blowing in at the same time in Chicago.
"I got off the plane (after 24 hours of travel) wearing flip-flops and a sweatshirt and the first thing Kelly (Amonte Hiller) said to me was, 'We've got to take you shopping!"' Nielsen says with a laugh. "That first day I spent hundreds of dollars on jackets and fleeces. I was very naive about how cold it was going to be; our winters (in Australia) are usually in the mid-40s. This was definitely a shock to the system."
And once practices began, Nielsen was in for another shock.
"Nothing like the club team back home, where we might have one or two practices a week lasting for an hour or hour and a half," she says. "We might have 12 people at a practice -- very low key and social. It's not unusual for the coach to come to your house for dinner or we might go out to barbecues together. The coaches are basically your mates.
"Here we have 30 girls at our practices and intersquad scrimmages for two to three hours, and they can be very intense. And you don't talk to the coach about what you're doing on the weekend!"
But despite cold and more intense training, Nielsen has never once thought about packing her bags and heading home.
"I wouldn't trade this experience for anything," she says. "I miss my family and friends, but I am able to stay in touch with them through a video cam every Friday night (Saturday morning in Australia). I get home for three weeks at Christmas each year and it's hard to come back because I'm leaving in the summer, but I never dreamt I'd be anywhere near winning four national championships, let alone three, in my four years here.
"Kelly is such a great coach, very intense and hard-working. She wants to be the best at everything she does and she instills that in us. When we come to practice, we know what she expects out of us. We all want to be as intense and hard-working as she is because we know it gets results. She's no different than she was during her playing days at Maryland and she's always doing whatever she can for us.
"To see how this program has grown during my time here is amazing," Nielsen adds. "The first couple of years I was here, it was still a hard sell for recruits. Now everyone wants to come here. The best high school kids come here because they want to be successful and play for Kelly. We've earned our way to the top."
Nielsen fondly remembers the team's trip to the White House last fall, when nine national championship teams were honored. Nielsen was the team representative to present a Northwestern jersey to President Bush.
"Kelly and some of the girls on the team started kidding me and told me I should ask him for my green card," she says. "It was only five minutes seeing him, but visiting the White House is something not a lot of people are not able to do."
Repeating as the Tewaaraton Trophy winner is something that never enters Nielsen's mind. Her focus is primarily on doing all she can to keep Northwestern's perfect season (now 13-0) intact.
"It's a great honor and seeing my name up there with the names of people who have won that trophy is pretty incredible," she says. "But a great player is only great because of the people you play with. I truly think the team I'm playing with is the big reason for it because they are the ones making me look good. My first thought when I won it was I am glad we won the national title to go along with it."
While she has become more of a scorer for the Wildcats in recent seasons, Nielsen says she is just content being a feeder.
"Ever since I can remember I have been playing behind the net," she says. "If we can create a good play and I can feed the ball into someone who scores good goals, that's more satisfying for me. I like to see my teammates finish the shot and get the recognition."
Nielsen says it's "surreal" to now see her name listed above a player (Adams) she idolized so much as a youngster.
"I had always heard about her (assist) record and she's such an amazing player," she says. "I never thought I would ever see my name listed anywhere close to hers, let alone above it. She's a very close friend of mine and I still look up to her."
After playing for the Australian World Cup team this summer in Prague, Nielsen will return to finish her degree in human development and psychological services. Following graduation in December, she would like to remain in the United States for two or three years so she can coach lacrosse.
"Lacrosse has given me so much, whether it has been playing for my club back home, playing for Australia or playing here," she says. "To have the experiences I've had, I consider myself very lucky and fortunate. Lacrosse is growing at such a rapid speed, so there should be a lot of opportunities for me to give back to the sport."