Three week ago Lake Forest High School senior Nina Nissly was a member of the Scout junior varsity swim team getting ready for the North Suburban Conference Meet as she had during all four years of her career.
On Saturday she became the first triple high school swimming champion in Illinois history. It took a lawsuit and help from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan as three gold medals came her way at the State Meet Friday and Saturday in Evanston.
Nissly was one of seven swimmers to compete in the inaugural Athletes with Disabilities heats of the State Finals after the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) settled a lawsuit filed by Fenwick High School’s Mary Kay Callahan in the spring seeking a separate event.
Born with Cerebral Palsey, Nissly had what Coach Cindy Dell describes as "tons of surgeries" to enable her to walk. She has learned to do a lot more than that.
Nissly, who began swimming at 8, entered three races—the 200-yard freestyle, the 50 freestyle and the 100 freestyle—and won all three.
“It feels great that I did it,” Nissly said after winning her third and final race—the 200—of the day to make history. “It was great to have a chance to be here and be able to win. It was quite a surprise.”
Lake Forest has had double state champions before including Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers, Rachael Stoehr a year ago and her brother, Mitch Stoehr, in 2009. Able bodied athletes are limited to two individual events but not Nissly and she took advantage of it to make history.
“We didn’t know about this until three week ago. When we heard she was swimming jayvee,” Dell said. Dell, Nissly's primary coach as the junior varsity mentor is also the boys’ head coach. “This is great for her and the team.”
The opportunity was a surprise to Nissly as well. Head Coach Carolyn Grevers—Matt’ sister—came into the workout. “She asked ‘do you want to go to Sectional,’” Nissly said. “As soon as I heard I said I’m in.”
Nissly may not be considered an “able bodied” athlete by the IHSA, but she was a complete part of the Scouts. She did nearly all workouts with her teammates. She swam the distances in practice the rest of the squad completed.
“She was in the thick of it,” Dell said of the jayvee competition. “She did the same things as everyone else did. She was in the weight room with us Monday, Wednesday and Friday. She swam all the laps (all four years).”
For Nissly, who also plays sled hockey, according to Dell, there is a special joy to swimming. “It feels so cool to go fast in the water,” Nissly said. “This is just incredible. When I started swimming (on the team) I never thought this would happen.”
For Nissly’s father, Tom Nissly, it was very simple. “This is one of the greatest days of my life,” he said as he wore a Scout cap sporting a button with a picture of his daughter. “She’s been four years on the swimming team and to top it off like this is great.”