Running Down a Dream
Nyoka Giles balances record-setting athletic career with academic excellence
If you asked Trinidad native Nyoka Giles 15 years ago where she saw herself in the future, she might have guessed correctly the part about her running collegiately and pursuing a degree that would allow her to help others. The part about doing both in Minnesota--a place that is the (literal) polar opposite of her homeland, though... that wouldn't likely have been her first thought.
"I had never been to Minnesota before. I didn't even know much about it," Giles (BASc, Manufacturing Technology, 2012) says with a smile. "Coach [Bingle] was visiting Trinidad, saw me at practice, and we got to talking...and that was it."
Despite being recruited by other Division I schools in (decidedly warmer) states like Florida and California, Giles came to Minnesota sight unseen. "The U has some of the top academic programs [in the areas] I was interested in studying, which of course played a role. And Coach and I had such a good connection, so here I am."
Born to Run
While a future in the northern climates may not have been the obvious choice for Giles, running clearly was--it was in her genes. "My parents were both involved in track and field (they were sprinters). In fact, that's how they first met. They were introduced by a mutual friend at a track meet when they were in high school."
She continues, "As for my getting started in the sport...I think the first time I realized that I could run was when I was in kindergarten. We were having a sports day at our school, and I was entered in a running race and ended up blowing past everyone and winning by a pretty large margin. From there, my parents realized I had some talent for running, so I tried out for the track team in primary school, and from there I joined a track club--we don't have high school running teams like you do here. In Trinidad, you have to be on a club team if you want to run competitively."
And run competitively she did. A sprinter like her parents, Giles' specialties were the 100, 200, and 400 meter distances, and her hard work earned her a spot on the Trinidad Junior National Team. Through the National Team, she competed in both the 2007 Pan American Junior Games in Brazil and the 2008 World Junior Championships in Poland.
Her successes continued after moving to Minnesota to compete for the Gophers. Voted 2009's Freshman of the Year, she earned her varsity letter and captured a NCAA Regional Championship as a part of the U's 4x100 team. She also represented Trinidad and Tobago at the 2009 Pan-Am Games, where she anchored the 4x100-meter relay to the bronze medal and earned a fifth-place finish in the 200 meter dash.
"The experience at the Pan-Am Games was especially meaningful because that year it was in Trinidad, so I got to compete on my home field. It was a nice way to round out that part of my running career," she says.
Despite an injury that curtailed her sophomore season, Giles' put together an impressive portfolio during her time as a Gopher. She ends her career ranked on the school's top-ten-performer lists in several events, including the 60 meters (fifth), 100 meters (tenth), indoor and outdoor 200 meters (third), 4x100-meter relay (first--twice this season her team broke the school record), and the 4x400-meter relay (first).
"Out of all the events, my favorite event has been the 200," she says with a smile, "because it's not too short, and not too long. But I will definitely miss the women on my relay teams...it's going to be very hard to say goodbye to them. The 4x1 team, we came in together, we lived together in the dorm our first year, last year we were the first 4x100 team from the U to qualify for the NCAA meet, and in the last year...we've just become very close."
Athletic Excellence; Academic All-Star
Giles' tenure at the U has not only been marked by athletic success--she's also an Academic All-Big Ten honoree. A 2012 graduate of the College of Continuing Education's Manufacturing Technology program (now called Manufacturing Operations Management), Giles says that being successful academically while balancing a D1 athletic career was a challenge, but worth it.
"You've got to fit in practice/the weight room/the trainer's room, along with competing and travelling, all while you're studying and taking classes. It's like working a full-time job and still going to school, and there are sacrifices you have to make to make sure all the aspects are covered. You definitely learn time management skills."
Initially, Giles planned to major in chemical engineering, but in her junior year she switched her major to manufacturing technology (with a chemistry minor), because the CCE program was a better fit with her career goals.
"I've always wanted to help people, even when I was younger. Once, when I was a child, I brought home this sick, runty puppy--the last of his litter that the owners didn't want. His tail was all rotting off, and he probably would have died. I carried him to the vet, nursed him back to health. Everyone tried to discourage it, but I knew I had to have him. And he ended up living a long time--something like 13 years.
"It's just always been a passion of mine, making sure people are cared for, doing well... my coach calls me the mother of our group."
Her drive to help others made her first consider working in pharmaceutical manufacturing and drug creation, but eventually she discovered a more people- and process-centered career path.
"I realized that chemical engineering wasn't the right fit for me, and started looking around at other options. I found MT, and after meeting with an adviser knew that it matched really well with what I wanted to do--which is work in medical device manufacturing. It's a field where I get some of that same satisfaction of being able to help people, just from a slightly different aspect.
"The course on FDA regulatory compliance and the business classes appealed to me especially, because I knew I wanted to work in a more managerial role in med tech--maybe process engineering or regulations, as opposed to a technical/product development role.
"My degree in MT gave me an understanding of the concepts behind process control and quality management in high-performance manufacturing organizations. It's also given me business and leadership skills that I think will be quite beneficial. It's a nice blend of the science with the leadership aspects. I think in some of the more traditional engineering-type majors it's easy to miss out on a lot of those business skills you get in this program."
Planning for the Future
After working at an internship this summer, Giles will be heading to Florida International University in the fall to begin her graduate studies in engineering management.
Will she miss her adopted home state after returning to a more tropical climate? Yes and no. "Since I'm the only one from my family in the States, my friends here have been my surrogate family. They're my Minnesota family. Having that support network meant a lot and I will miss them very much. I WILL, however, be glad to not to have to put up with the cold weather anymore," she laughs.
"But still...If I had to pick one word to describe my experiences here, I'd say 'inspirational.' My track career, going to nationals...I am proud of that. Graduating with my MT degree and a minor in chemistry. I am proud of that.
"Being in track, in school here in the U.S., in Minnesota, I've grown so much. Not just the hard work and struggles I've gone through to get here, but also seeing some of the things my teammates go through and how they have succeeded. And how we have worked together and encouraged each other... it's inspired me to be a better person."