UAA Alpine skier Leon Nikic is making the most of his 'last dance' with a sensational senior season

Feb. 17—University of Alaska Anchorage Alpine skier Leon Nikic is determined to make the most of his final season of college competition before he graduates in the spring.

"It's more or less, make it or break it," he said. "I knew that coming into the season, so I took an approach that I might as well give it all I got one more year, and do that from the first day of downhill training in April and May until the end of it after NCAAs and see what comes out of it."

The senior has been steadily ascending during his time with the program, and it's paying major dividends as his final collegiate season has been his best so far.

"He is having an outstanding season," UAA head coach Sparky Anderson said. "Last year he came on really strong at the end and won a couple of the region championship races, and his giant slalom really came into a place where he can now start to become more dominant not just at the college level, but the World Cup level."

Nikic has made it to the podium in almost every race he's finished this season, 6-of-8, including his first win in the giant slalom at the Denver University Invitational earlier this month.

"He is an amazing athlete and a tremendous student of the sport, so he understands all the concepts and what it takes to win and be the best," Anderson said.

Not only has this been his best season from a pure results standpoint, but Nikic believes that he has improved in every aspect imaginable.

"Regardless of that, my skiing, my development, and my mentality ahead of the season and on a daily basis (has improved)," he said. "I'm in a good place physically and am more prepared than ever."

He hopes to qualify for the national team of his home country of Croatia next season, so he's maintained an all-in mindset — just like one of his favorite athletes and role models, Michael Jordan.

"I definitely have some of that Last Dance mentality in there," Nikic said. "I don't follow basketball a lot, but that era back then of Jordan and (Scottie) Pippen inspired me to be a (Chicago) Bulls fan and a sports fan in general."

The most significant change that Anderson has noticed in Nikic is his elevated confidence level that stems from meticulous preparation.

"He has had a lot of volume and time on snow, and he's confident every time he goes out," he said. "He knows exactly how to prepare for a race. He looks at the terrain, he looks at the course set, he understands what he needs to bring to each run over every race day to be successful."

Consistency has been the biggest catalyst of his success

Nikic's goal coming into his final year, more than racking up podium finishes, was being consistent with his racing. He got hurt his freshman year, came back and performed well, and showed some improvement the following year. However, he was tired of not regularly producing the results and performing the way he knew he was capable of.

"At the beginning of races, I'd have an amazing run, and then not so much, and it was always a little variable," Nikic said. "This year, I was definitely focused on finding that consistency and risking it more."

At the beginning of the season, during the fall, his struggles with inconsistency endured, but now he feels more stabilized in the right direction.

In addition to making the Croatian national teams, his post-college plans include competing on the World Cup circuit.

"That depends on a lot of factors, so I'm just focusing on improving my skiing on a daily basis," Nikic said.

He believes that to be an elite Alpine skier or a top athlete in general requires a great amount of discipline, and because his sport is so individualized, it takes even more dedication.

"It takes doing a lot of things you don't like to do and doing a lot of things that suck every day," Nikic said. "Whether that is going to do hill sprints or intervals in the heat of the summer or going to train by yourself in minus 30 Celsius during the winter, there are a lot of things that you have to do. It gives you a lot of qualities that you carry out of skiing post your athletic career."

Anderson admires Nikic for his leadership and the way he shows his teammates "how you need to not just be physically prepared but mentally prepared" each day at practice.

"With the challenges we have in Alaska with weather and everything, every day provides an opportunity to be better even if there are some roadblocks in the way that make it difficult to train," he said.

When Nikic came over from Europe, Anderson shared that it took a little while for him to get used to the different types of snow he'd be racing on in the United States. Anderson said that "having to stretch the pressure a little bit out of the turn shape and be able to bring speed into the arc was a learning curve for him."

However, it didn't take Nikic long to adapt, which Anderson credits to his willingness to learn and study the sport.

"It took him a year or two to figure out how to be consistently fast in all conditions and everything that the West can throw at you," he said.

Coming to America and becoming a Seawolf

Born in Germany, Nikic grew up in Croatia, and his parents were from former Yugoslavia. His skiing journey began when he was 6 years old and his dad signed him up for a club back in Croatia, where he attended a ski camp.

"That's how it all got started, and from then on I started ski racing in the Croatian children's cups and stuff like that," Nikic said. "That battling spirit is what really got me hooked on it."

The older he got, the tougher he knew he needed to become to go as far as he could in the sport.

"It's a very hard and lonely sport at times because everybody is there to cheer and applaud when you're doing good, but close to nobody is there on days you're not doing good," Nikic said. "You learn to be tough and I like that."

In 2010, when he was 10 years old, his family moved to Austria, where he would be inspired to pursue skiing in college and eventually meet a friend in high school who would help him land on the radar of the Seawolves coaching staff.

"A girl that used to be on the UAA team before I came here, Rebecca Fiegl, went to the same high school as me," he said. "I got in touch with her and she put me in touch with Sparky and that's how I came here."

Recruiting kids to join the program can be difficult because of Alaska's geographical isolation, but they didn't have to worry about that with Nikic.

"To get somebody to come here, you kind of need to find somebody that is looking for a little bit more adventure and is maybe thinking outside the box a little bit," Anderson said. "It's not your big, leafy green campus with a football team, but we're going to be able to provide something for you that the other schools can't."

Prior to his arrival at UAA, Nikic was always fascinated with coming to Alaska because he viewed it as the "furthest you could go away from anything on the map."

"You get accustomed to the cold, it takes a lot from you to be up here, so (you) build some toughness overall just being up here with the short, cold days in winter," Nikic said. "The springs here are amazing and we have great training."

Anderson also believes that all the team bonding they do while traveling and the camaraderie throughout the entire athletic department are also alluring factors.

"It's a pretty cool community here at UAA, and we're well-known throughout our association, and the college ranks as being a team that is a bit more tighter and bonded than the other groups are," Anderson said.