For all the grueling training hours Nicole Chapko has spent in the pool, it was the most mundane of movements that threatened her swimming career.
In June 2011, Chapko was riding a coach bus to a swim meet in Nashville, Tenn., with her St. Charles Swimming Club teammates. She was heading toward the front of the bus to hand one of her coaches a DVD. Chapko isn’t sure what caused her to lose her balance, but she lurched awkwardly, and her kneecap popped out of socket.
“I tell people, and they laugh and say ‘Sorry I’m laughing’ because it seems like such a weird way to dislocate your knee,” Chapko said. “But I guess it happens.”
For Chapko, the injury proved no laughing matter. Although it led to a junior year regression, Chapko did not allow the setback to derail her long term. The Michigan State recruit enjoyed a strong senior season for St. Charles East that included a pair of top-10 individual finishes in the IHSA state meet, commanding Kane County Chronicle Girls Swimmer of the Year honors.
“You think what if this didn’t happen, where would I have been now,” Chapko said of her thought process in the aftermath of her knee injury. “That kind of ran through my mind a lot, but I think this injury just made me stronger mentally because I knew if I can get through this, I can get through any minor setback.”
That theory was put to the test this season. Chapko suffered a fractured foot in mid-August, but she was mostly able to swim through it. East coach Joe Cabel calls Chapko – who earned academic All-America status last year – “extremely easy going,” even in the face of adversity.
“She’s unflappable. I’ve only seen her cry once, and that was when her kneecap was over on the side of her leg,” Cabel said. “She enjoys the sport. She’s very dedicated, not only in the water but out of water. She takes care of herself. She deserves All-American status.”
After qualifying for the IHSA Girls Swimming and Diving State events in individual events as a freshman and sophomore, Chapko had to settle for relay participation as a junior because of how backlogged her training and conditioning became after the dislocated kneecap.
This season, Chapko qualified for the state meet in four events, including the 100-yard breaststroke, in which she placed sixth. Chapko also came in ninth in the 200 IM, and swam with the Saints’ 400 freestyle and 200 freestyle relays (though, much to her chagrin, she disqualified the 200 freestyle relay team after leaving early).
Chapko’s 100 breaststroke prowess was tested repeatedly throughout the season by teammate Shea Hoyt. Hoyt and Chapko finished in a virtual dead heat for first place at the St. Charles North Sectional, and Hoyt’s final-day time in the 100 breaststroke at the state meet was actually slightly faster than Chapko’s 1:04.62, but Hoyt could place no better than seventh since she had slotted into the consolation heat the day before.
Chapko formed a quick friendship with Hoyt, who moved to town from the Atlanta area last year.
“We knew how to push each other and race each other, and we both would swim really great when we’d race each other,” Chapko said. “We’re friends outside of the pool and know how to push each other inside the pool.”
Chapko planned to leave today for a Junior Nationals Meet this week at the University of Tennessee.
She chose Michigan State as her college destination over Connecticut and West Virginia, partially as a nod to her parents’ Michigan upbringing.
Cabel expects Chapko to become a productive Spartan, suggesting her senior year success with the Saints is a prelude to bigger things.
“She just got a little bit better every month,” Cabel said. “I think she had a pretty good state meet, and I think there’s a little left in her. We left a little left in her for Michigan State.”