There is no pain on Nichole Sheehan’s face, just a 1,000-watt smile. There is no anguish in her eyes, just a sparkle. You look at her and wonder, “How can that be?” Talk to her for five minutes and you realize, “That’s how it always will be.” It is remarkable, really.
Sheehan lost her father, Kevin, to a car accident when she was in third grade. Her mother remarried a couple of years later, creating a blended family of three siblings and four stepsiblings for 11-year-old Nichole.
It was a lot to process.
Sheehan kept smiling, and soon found an athletic outlet. Track and field, the hurdles in particular, became a passion as a fifth-grader at Epiphany Grade School.
Two years later, she placed third in the IESA State Meet in the hurdles. As an eighth-grader, she charged toward the final hurdle with hopes of winning. The Achilles tendon in her right leg snapped. The pain was excruciating. Sheehan finished the race anyway, placing seventh.
Surgery followed, then a lengthy rehab. As a Central Catholic High School freshman, four hurdles into her first indoor race, Sheehan went down. The meniscus and anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee were torn. She needed surgery again.
As a sophomore, Sheehan made it through the indoor season and “did great,” said Saints’ coach Laura McNeil. In the first outdoor meet at Heyworth, while warming up for the hurdles, she blew out the knee again.
There would be another surgery, more rehab.
Sheehan kept smiling.
As a junior, she was a team captain. The hurdles were out (too risky), but Sheehan ran the 100-meter dash and on the 400 relay team. The idea was to run the straightaway and avoid curves.
She set a personal best in the 100 at the sectional, but did not qualify for state. She won’t this year, either.
Sheehan’s Achilles tendon began to give her problems again in the offseason. In November, she had to undergo reconstructive surgery. Running was out. The hurdles were officially a memory.
“It’s really hard to just watch people running, especially the hurdles,” said Epiphany’s school record-holder in the hurdles. “I’d like to know how much better I could get (after junior high). I never will, so I guess that’s hard.”
Sheehan smiles anyway. She’s part of the team anyway. A petite 5-foot-3, she is the smallest shot put and discus thrower you’ll ever lay eyes on.
Sheehan went to McNeil begging to do something — anything — to be on the team. She has thrown in two indoor meets and every outdoor meet, saying proudly, “I haven’t managed to get last place, so that’s a success for me.”
“I’ve been a part of this team since I can remember,” Sheehan said Friday, a walking boot on her right foot. “Our head coach (McNeil) has been my coach since fifth grade. We call her ‘Mama’ because we’re so close. I love my team and I love my school. We’re all just a family and I couldn’t imagine being without them.”
Sheehan refers to it all — her father’s death, the injuries, the surgeries/rehabs — as “bumps in the road.” She copes by wiping away the tears, drawing from faith, family and friends, putting on a happy face and moving forward.
Next up is Carthage College, where she will major in athletic training in hopes of becoming a physical therapist.
“I figure I’ve had enough experience with that,” she said.
She smiled. It’s what she does, no matter what life throws her way.
It’s remarkable, really.