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Early Thursday morning, Nicola Martial Dietz, husband Shaun Deitz, 13-year-old son Jahymn Dietz and 5-year-old daughter Jaelynn Dietz left New York’s JFK Airport.
Following a quick stop in Chicago, a before-noon arrival in Omaha and a fast shuttle to Lincoln, Nicola, 42, felt like she’d just returned home, even though one of Nebraska’s best-ever student-athletes had not stepped foot in Nebraska since her college graduation.
By mid-afternoon Thursday, Nicola was introducing herself to Nebraska’s jumpers and inspiring them to achieve a lofty goal like she accomplished under Gary Pepin, the same coach who helped her win three NCAA individual championships in the triple jump.
Nicola focused equally on the most important honor she received in her college career – first-team Academic All-American. A Political Science major and History minor, Nicola went on to earn her law degree at Seton Hall, a private Catholic university in South Orange, N.J.
Nicola captured back-to-back triple jump titles at the 1994 and ‘95 NCAA Outdoor Championships and won her lone NCAA indoor title in 1996. A six-time All-American, she swept the indoor and outdoor conference triple jump titles all four seasons of her career.
She also represented her home country of Guyana that summer at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga. With nothing but fond memories of her entire Nebraska experience, Nicola was eager to reconnect with Pepin.
Nebraska Senior Associate A.D. and Senior Woman's Administrator Pat Logsdon and Director of Athletics Shawn Eichorst flank Nicola Martial following her Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame enshrinement in September, 2016.
To Nicola’s Surprise, Former Nebraska Assistant Recommended the Huskers
Nicola’s recruiting story is in a league of its own. When she received a recruiting letter from Nebraska, Nicola didn’t even think about opening it up and reading it. A student at Valley High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, she was trying to decide a pecking order from the three schools that interested her the most – Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA.
In the midst of that analysis, a coach visited her high school. “His name was Kurt Craft,” she recalled. He had been an assistant coach at Nebraska, but had just been named the head coach in Reno, which was very close to where I lived.”
Now the head coach at East Carolina University, Craft gave Nicola the best piece of advice she’s ever received and his words still resonate. “I remember him saying ‘I love your personality, I love what you’ve done, and at my new school, I can give you a full scholarship.’”
After that, Craft turned the table and asked the most interesting, most unexpected and most selfless question a high school kid can hear. “Have you ever heard of Nebraska?” Craft asked.
She acknowedged receiving a letter from Nebraska but did not open it. Nicola remembers Craft’s response. “You know what?” he asked. “I think you should visit Nebraska!”
Nicola’s Take: I think He Wanted to Make Sure That I Would Develop Properly
Stunned then and still stunned now, Nicola marvels how a coach who possibly could have recruited her to his school took the higher road and gave a high school senior the best advice he could at the time. “I think he wanted to make sure that I would develop properly,” Nicola said. “He thought that I would do well at his school, but also thought that if I went to Nebraska and was coached by Gary Pepin, I would be something much greater.”
Craft was right, and Nicola opted for a trip to Lincoln. “Nebraska was my last visit after the three I was considering, along with UNLV,” she said. “When I went to Nebraska, I thought ‘Oh my God’ I almost missed the one I ended up choosing.”
Two memories stick out. "I saw a high school girls’ basketball tournament game at the Devaney Center, and everyone was shouting and screaming like I’d never seen," she said. "The energy impressed me. So did Coach Pepin and the family atmosphere of both track and field teams. I could tell Nebraska was different than others, and I remember thinking if you’re going to compete, go somewhere where everybody cares. That was amazing to me, and I felt it.”
Living in Brooklyn, Nicola (1993-1996) embraces being enshrined into the Nebraska Athletics Hall of Fame Friday evening, along with six other Husker legends – Heather (Brink) Rennerfeldt (women’s gymnastics, 1997-2000), Phil Cahoy Jr. (men’s gymnastics, 1980-1983), Janet (Kruse) Sellon (volleyball, 1988-91), Nancy (Meendering) Metcalf (volleyball, 1997-99, 2001), Johnny Rodgers (football, 1970-72) and Will Shields (football,1989-92).
From left, back: Jahymn Dietz, Nicola (Martial) Dietz, Gary Pepin and Shaun Dietz; front row: Jaelynn Dietz.
For Last 14 Years, Nicola Has Shared Wisdom in the Classroom and Coached
Nicola (above with Pepin and husband) wanted to bring her kids to Lincoln and give them an opportunity to see what their mom talks about. “I’m a teacher,” she said. “I teach everything, social studies, government, politics. I teach U.S. history and global history, even economics.”
For the last 14 years, Nicola has shared her wisdom in the classroom, plus coached and developed track and field athletes.
Despite her hectic pace, Nicola sometimes slows down and remembers two of the best advisors she’s ever known – Dennis Leblanc, executive associate athletic director for Academics, and Keith Zimmer, senior associate athletic director for Life Skills and the N Club.
"Nicola was an individual who came here to take advantage of all the resources," Leblanc said. "She was not going to allow her athletic career to intervere with her education. She was going to use every resource to become the greatest athlete she could be, and she is one of the greatest athletes in the history of Nebraska Athletics."
One thing drove Nicola to succeed. "I remember looking at the Academic All-American oil paintings on the wall and the lack of black female athletes,” Nicola said. “What stood out to me was Nebraska having the most Academic All-Americans, and I wanted to be part of that."
Nicola majored in Political Science “because I knew I was going to law school someday,” she said. “I took some of the hardest classes in theories. It was not an easy thing for me to do, but I had the resources that were necessary to compete. I talked to advisers. As long as you’re disciplined, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve.”
Nebraska’s Culture in Athletics, Academics Inspire Going Above and Beyond
Nebraska’s culture in athletics and academics inspired Nicola to go above and beyond. She sees Nebraska as “second to none” in equipping student-athletes to improve daily and compete hard. She believes Nebraska teaches students to excel academically just like coaches prepare athletes for high performance.
“After you go to class and take your notes, Nebraska will check you on that,” she said. “They have everything in place to make you stay ahead. If you are willing to work, you have all the resources available to learn. A lot of schools have a lot of flash. Nebraska keeps it simple and gives you the strength to work hard. It’s so amazing.”
Nicola earning a law degree “didn’t surprise me a lick,” Pepin said. “She’s pretty special in a lot of ways. She was good on the track and really highly motivated in the classroom and in the way she approaches life. She set goals and did whatever was needed to achieve those goals, and all of that carried over to her personal life. Nicola was a very good worker and fun to coach. She made tremendous improvements in her event."
Remarkably, Nicola won every conference title available, indoors and outdoors. From her sophomore year to her senior season in college, she also placed among the nation’s top three triple jumpers. She won her first national championship as a sophomore in 1994 in Boise, Idaho.
With Pepin’s Help, Encouragement, Nicola Martial Became a Fierce Competitor
Nicola relied on Pepin to try anything and everything to win titles. “Whatever issues I had, he fixed,” she said. "With his help, I became a fierce competitor. When I came to Nebraska, I could only squat the bar. It was a difficult adjustment. I remember talking to Coach Pepin about it and that summer I stayed in Nebraska.
“I remember going to Mike Arthur,” Nicola said. “He taught me the proper technique of the squat using just the bar. I also remember how a chiropractor adjusted my back at a track meet and how someone worked on my shins and knees. A lot of schools keep track with track, football with football and basketball with basketball. Nebraska overlapped sports, and it worked out well.”
While admitting that “I’m very strong in a lot of ways, I wanted Coach Pepin to coach me,” she said. “He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t scream. He’s very straight, and sometimes when you tell someone something very straight, they get offended. Not Coach Pepin.
“I remember one time at a track meet, I jumped and I came over and he told me my hop looked more like a high school hop than a college hop. I internalized it because I wanted to show him. I was walking back all mad and fuming. I asked myself ‘that jump was a high school hop?’ I told myself I’m going to show him, so I went out and jumped a lot better."
All-American Triple Jumper: Pepin Not as Reserved as People Think He Is
“I just knew he was able to convey to me what I needed to do,” she said. “Coach Pepin is not as quiet and as reserved as people think he is. He just has a very soft heart. You’ve got to communicate, however. Most athletes expect the coach to comment on something, but they don’t open up and communicate.”
Once in a while, Nicola will call Pepin to talk about an athlete. “Sometimes, I call him because he rushes into my mind and I want to make sure that he’s well," she said. "With my family being so far apart, Nebraska really did become a home away from home for me.”
That’s why Thursday’s “homecoming” meant so much. “I’m so excited to be back here and see my alma mater again," she said. "I would do what that college coach did for me when I was in high school – recommend Nebraska because there really is no place like it.”
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