Best in the land

By Lawrence Bailey

Sitting on a bench, the sun shining down, it is clear Joanna Niemczewska has grown in the past year. While her warm, humble demeanor remains unchanged, a quiet resolve shines through. That resolve has allowed her to reach the highest heights of Canadian Interuniversity Sport–in only her third year.

On Mon., May 3, Niemczewska became only the second female University of Calgary athlete to receive the Jim Thompson Trophy, awarded to the CIS Female Athlete of the Year.

“I just wanted to laugh, because I was blown away,” the Dinos star smiles, reminiscing about when her name was called. “I didn’t believe it was really happening. The first place I looked was where all the athletes were sitting and I couldn’t believe I was up there. So many of them had done so much.”

While it may sound as though Niemczewska is just saying all the right things, her sincerity is impossible to ignore. The 20-year-old native of Warsaw, Poland was as genuinely surprised to hear her name called as she has been all year, a year that also saw her take home CIS Women’s Volleyball Player of the Year and U of C Female Athlete of the Year honours. In many ways, she was just happy to be among the eight athletes nominated.

“It was awesome, there was so much going on you didn’t even think of the awards,” she says of the experience, which included a plethora of perks, from a hotel room for the weekend to dinners and day trips. “They would make everything into such an event. It was hard to be nervous, because you’re having so much fun, you’re getting to know these seven phenomenal people, they kept us so busy. It was so much fun, I don’t even think I broke a sweat the whole time.”

Meeting her fellow nominees left the most lasting impression on Niemczewska.

“I was in awe of some of them,” she confesses. “For example, the wrestler (Concordia University’s Martine Dugrenier). They went through everything she does. Her daily schedule is unbelievable: she coaches, she has a job, she’s the top wrestler in the country, she does well in school. It’s unbelievable.”

In the end, Niemczewska credits her teammates accomplishments that allowed her to stand out in such remarkable company.

“This is a team thing, because if we lost to Laval in that semi-final, any awards I would have won would have been done at the awards banquet at nationals,” she explains. “I wouldn’t be considered for any of this if we hadn’t won–a national championship is that big of a deal. That’s probably the edge I had over the other nominees. People realize how much it takes, especially those people who did the voting.”

She’s also very candid in saying the award would have been somewhat empty without a championship banner to raise in the Jack Simpson Gymnasium to open next season. After falling short in three consecutive years, the Dinos’ fourth trip to the national championship in as many seasons was a much happier experience.

“The national championship win is a big burden off the team,” Niemczewska smiles, acknowledging she will need to be one of the team’s leaders heading into the 2004-05 campaign. “Now that we’ve won, we know we can do it, we know what it takes.”

With the awards all handed out, the season is now officially over, and the third-year star has a chance to reflect on the championship campaign that was.

“The biggest thing is we were all such close friends,” muses Niemczewska when asked for the secret of the team’s success. “It’s beyond playing for your teammates, you are playing for your friends and you don’t want to let your friends down.”

Her own game went from sporadic and inconsistent last year to steady and dominant night in and night out this season. She credits much of her success to a change in perspective after a shoulder injury shortened her sophomore season.

“This year has really taught me to calm down. I used to get stressed about little things I can’t control,” she admits. “This year I’ve learned to let that go, and just work my ass off and try to change things.”

With a vote of confidence from the CIS community, the Saint Mary’s High School alumnus has already set her sights on bigger and better things next season.

“It’s nice that now it’s done and I can start focusing on next year and work toward improving,” she says, noting her next step will be the national team selection camp in early July. “We all still relish the title and we talk about it, but it’s great to move forward. [The award is] really going to help me out next year. If I’m down I can draw on it as a confidence booster and tell myself ‘well, I did it last year.’”

As the top female university athlete in the country, Niemczewska has set the standard for individual excellence, a standard she will be looking to redefine–but she would happily settle for a defense of the national title.

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