Meet Nekoe Baumgartner, the woman behind the wheel of Blue Jackets’ zamboni

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — It’s definitely been a climb for 25-year-old Nekoe Baumgartner to get where she is today.

“I just wasn’t doing well,” Baumgartner said. “Like mentally, physically, whatever. In all honesty I didn’t enjoy skating growing up.”

Baumgartner and her family moved to the Columbus area when she was six years old and figure skating became a part of her life. It didn’t take long, though, for figure skating to become her whole life as she rose through the competitive ranks.

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“There was just this negative atmosphere around it,” she said. “You’re supposed to look at what you did wrong, how you fix it, all the minute details and you just focus on all that bad and you don’t look at the big picture.”

So it’s no surprise that after more than ten years of skating, Baumgartner was burnt out and at 19-years-old she stepped away from the sport.

At this point, she needed a job. Being at the rink had been her whole life. So, she decided to work at the Dublin Chiller in an off-ice capacity. Her work ethic led her to learn all the different jobs around the rink. But to keep moving up in the company, she needed to return to the ice and learn a final skill: how to drive the Zamboni.

“It was a long battle to try to get them to teach me,” she said. “It’s still that divide between guy versus girl, who can do it better. There’s still that aspect of change within the industry at least it felt like that to me why it took so long to convince them to let me drive.”

And it turns out, Baumgartner’s perfectionist personality and attention to detail from figure skating made her a natural at cutting the ice.

“Something about it kind of stuck and it was easy for me to understand,” she said with a shrug. “There’s not necessarily one right way to do it, and I think I like that too, because in skating it’s kind of drilled into you that there’s a specific way to do it and you have to do it. This way and you have to do it over and over. But it’s nice because you can continuously talk to so many different people and learn how they do something. I’ve definitely kind of picked like what I choose and what sounds like something that works for me.”

It worked for the Blue Jackets as well. Eventually, Baumgartner found herself in an exclusive group driving the Zamboni during professional hockey games. Only five percent of Zamboni drivers in professional hockey are women. She also did most of the driving during the United States Figure Skating Championships that came to Nationwide Arena in January.

It’s not lost on Baumgartner that she’s leaving her mark beyond the fresh cuts of ice at Nationwide Arena.

“I will say it’s so cute to see like just a little girl standing down there like, ‘Hi!’” she said imitating a little wave. “So I definitely do think about that because it is so cute.

“And then like, I’ll walk up from doing something and there will be like a family there and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh! There is the Zamboni driver!’” she added with a bashful smile.

It may look like she’s just going in circles. But, driving the Zamboni helped Baumgartner find her direction. And it actually led her back to figure skating.

“It’s been something that is just my free time and it’s enjoyable and it’s fun,” she said and has even started competing again as part of the Ohio State club figure skating team.

“It’s so much more motivating with the people that you skate with because it’s so much more team-based and everybody just cheers each other on and it’s very refreshing and nice to see,” Baumgartner said. “I guess just found the joy in continuously trying and not caring if I fail and I think that’s a good thing to do. Doesn’t matter where it gets you. Doesn’t matter if it gets you somewhere here, or nowhere but you’re proud of yourself. Just keep trying.”

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