At start of historic career, Georgia Tech’s Nicole Fegans wrestled with self-doubt

Georgia Tech distance runner Nicole Fegans qualified for the NCAA championships in the 5,000 meters on May 28 at the NCAA East preliminary meet in Bloomington, Ind. (Georgia Tech Athletics)

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Georgia Tech distance runner Nicole Fegans qualified for the NCAA championships in the 5,000 meters on May 28 at the NCAA East preliminary meet in Bloomington, Ind. (Georgia Tech Athletics)

Before she came to hold nine school records, Nicole Fegans was plagued by doubt, lacking in confidence and wondering if she had what it took to make it as a distance runner at Georgia Tech, to say nothing of her ability to handle the load in the classroom.

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She was frustrated, didn’t allow herself the grace to make mistakes and couldn’t enjoy the sport she loved so much as a high schooler at Landmark Christian School. There was little indication of what lay ahead for her – becoming the greatest female distance runner in school history.

At the end of her sophomore year, she realized that she had essentially ruined her year of running with her mindset.

“Because I would be at practice and just be like, ‘Oh, I’m tired, I’m out of shape,’ because I was hurt,” Fegans said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “‘This is going to be a bad workout.’ And then it would be a bad workout because I’ve told myself it would be a bad workout.”

By turning her approach in a healthier direction, she will conclude her Tech career Saturday at the NCAA track and field championships at Oregon’s Hayward Field, one of the sport’s shrines. Tech’s only entrant in the championship, Fegans is one of 24 runners who will take the line for the 5,000 meters. It will be the final race in a career in which she has won three ACC championships and earned All-American status five times, among other accomplishments. The possibility of a turn as a professional runner looms after her NCAA appearance.

“I feel like there’s ‘running Nicole,’ and then there’s me,” Fegans said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, running Nicole has (accomplished) all those things.’ And then running Nicole is just still also overwhelmed. Like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’”

When Fegans came to Tech in the fall of 2017 from Landmark Christian, there was reason to think she had a chance at such greatness. She had been a high school All-American, most notably finishing seventh in the Foot Locker cross-country national championships the previous December. She chose Tech over Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama-Birmingham.

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“And so you knew she had that level of talent,” Tech coach Alan Drosky said. “But there’s so many unknowns. How are they going to handle those transitions that you make in college? How important is this to her? And those are questions that you try to answer in recruiting, but at the end of the day, those are just kind of best guesses.”

The transition, as it often is, was bumpy. Training and competing in a significantly more intense environment and taking classes among high-achieving students (the admission rate that year was 23%), Fegans felt like she didn’t belong.

“Every day, I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m smart enough. I feel like I’m not good enough for this,’” she said. “‘I’m not great at teamwork. Can I run as fast as I need to run? The coaches are relying on me. I’m the only freshman traveling (to meets). I don’t think I’m good enough to do any of this stuff.’”

“That's how I get now where, even after bad races, yes, I'm disappointed, but I know I'm better than that."

- Georgia Tech distance runner Nicole Fegans

Though she was Tech’s second-fastest finisher at the ACC cross-country championships that fall and then helped break the school record in the 4x1,500 relay, the doubts followed her into her second year. A stress fracture in her left foot suffered in the fall of 2018 – she competed on it through the end of the season, when she helped Tech qualify for the NCAA cross-country championships for the first time since 2001 – that put her on the sideline didn’t help.

“It was very stressful,” she said. “A little bit was, ‘I don’t know if I deserve to be here’ but also a sense of like, ‘I feel like I need to prove myself in everything I do.’”

Even her successes didn’t necessarily alleviate her stress.

With a higher standard to be held to, “I feel like it just builds it up even more,” Fegans said.

She recalled Drosky telling her that she needed to find her confidence, telling her that she belonged at Tech. In her words, Fegans said was tired of being hard on herself.

“I’m like, ‘Dude, just relax,’” she said. “‘You’re good enough to be here, and just enjoy it.’”

The past three years have been the fruit of the fusion of Fegans’ physical gifts, inner drive and belief in her ability to compete with the best college runners in the country.

“She fights like hell,” Drosky said. “She’s extraordinarily tough.”

Drosky and Fegans both recall with relish her first ACC title, at the 2020 conference indoor championship meet only days before the pandemic brought the world to a halt. There, she won the 3,000 in a school-record 9:06.92, almost 41 seconds faster and 23 places better than her performance at the ACC indoor meet the year before.

“If you watch footage of that race and you can see when I’m finishing, my entire team is in the corner just cheering for me, and I feel like that’s what it’s all about, is that,” Fegans said. “That alone for me was why it was the coolest thing.”

She has since won the 10,000 at the ACC outdoor championship in 2021 (setting the school and meet records of 32:45.30 in her first 10K race at the college level) and won the 3,000 conference indoor title again in February of this year. She finished 12th at the 2020 NCAA cross-country meet, earning All-American status. Drosky, who ran at Tech from 1985-87, and has been on the coaching staff ever since (he became head coach of the cross-country teams in 1992 and head coach for the women’s track and field team in 1996), said it’s “pretty clear-cut” that Fegans is the top female distance runner in school history.

She has held her own in the classroom, as well, earning multiple All-ACC academic citations. She graduated in May with a degree in business administration and also served this year as president of Tech’s student-athlete advisory board. She interned last summer for a 3D printing company in South Carolina, 3D Systems.

Her confidence and perspective now enable her to move on from poorer performances rather than dwell on them.

“That’s how I get now where, even after bad races, yes, I’m disappointed, but I know I’m better than that,” she said.

After her race in Oregon, she plans to take the summer to travel, spend time with her family (her sister, Erin, also is on the team) and figure out her next steps. She may try to compete professionally, start a career in marketing or web-page design or possibly work and train together. Serving as a volunteer coach on Drosky’s staff is another option.

“We’ll see,” she said. “It keeps changing.”

At the NCAA Championships, her goal is to finish in the top eight and earn first-team All-American status.

“It’s one of the toughest years, I feel like, in terms of times people have run,” Fegans said. “So I’m just doing what I can now, and hopefully I go there and run what I want and I’ll see how it goes. And if not, that’s OK.

“Sort of.”