April 19, 2017
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Nicole Artz wasn't crystal clear on what she wanted to do after graduating from the University of Michigan, but she was sure that it involved helping children. She thought about being a pediatrician, but it didn't take her long to focus on elementary school education.
When Artz, the Big Ten all-around champion in women's gymnastics, tells you that she is going to be a kindergarten teacher this fall at Ann Arbor's Wines Elementary, she can't stop smiling.
"I love it," said Artz, an elementary education and language arts major. "It's nice to learn different things and interact with the kids more and see them understand more things. It's really cool to see them light up when they get it."
She found her calling in addition to making her mark in her sport and for that became one of 28 student-athletes (two from each member institution) selected as Big Ten Medal of Honor winners from this senior class. The award recognizes supreme athletic and academic accomplishments, and Wolverines All-America football tight end Jake Butt joined Artz in receiving the medal.
"It is a true honor," said Artz, "and I still don't think I have a full understanding of how big the award is. But I've been looking into it, and it is a big deal -- so I do know how cool it is. It really is an honor. I didn't come here to win honors, but it is really cool to be recognized for what I've done here.
"It's been a great journey."
Artz is the third member of the women's gymnastics team to take the honor over the last seven years, joining Sarah Curtis (2011) and Katie Zurales (2013), while also becoming the program's seventh Big Ten Medal of Honor winner since the award was initiated for women in 1982.
She credited long-time Michigan coach Bev Plocki for her development.
"Our relationship has really grown," said Artz. "She's taught me plenty of things, and we'll always stay in touch. It wasn't only about gymnastics but how to deal with adversity, relationships and being a good leader."
Artz is an eight-time NACGC/W All-American, NCAA Regional champion on the beam in 2017 and a two-time Northeast Regional Gymnast of the Year in addition to being the 2017 Big Ten Gymnast of the Year, a six-time conference individual champion and leading the Wolverines to four consecutive Big Ten championships as a two-time team captain.
She graduated from Holland (Michigan) Ottawa West High one year early and said jump-starting her college education and athletics has "made her experience what it was" because she so enjoyed being classmates with Talia Chiarelli, her co-captain for two seasons.
"We tried to absorb all we could in our freshman and sophomore years," said Artz. "Those upperclassmen taught us how to lead this team, and we tried to keep that going and be even better.
"The Big Tens are Michigan's baby and to come in and win four in a row is one of the things we're most proud of. Now, we'd like to see them build from that and win a national championship. But we're happy and excited about the four Big Tens."
Yet, when all of her awards are listed for her, she chose being named a Big Ten Distinguished Scholar after her sophomore and junior years as most special. Freshmen aren't eligible, and scholars in this senior class have yet to be announced. Student-athletes must have a minimum 3.7 grade-point average to be named.
"I'm proudest of being the Distinguished Scholar," said Artz, who was the Bates-Deskin Award winner as the top junior student-athlete at Michigan last year. "Doing school work with athletics is even more important. All the education awards are really important to me."
Artz also visited Mott Children's Hospital every Thursday with teammate Paige Zaziski and student assistant Cailee Hills to encourage young patients. Cailee's father, Chip Hills, lost his life to pancreatic cancer, and Artz organized the Flip for Chip activities for a meet with Southern Utah at Crisler Center in February that brought awareness to pancreatic cancer.
"I got very close to Cailee and her family," said Artz, "and I wanted to do something for her family because they deserved it. And watching her father fight inspired our team to fight. It was something that brought this team closer together. Her family impacted me as an athlete and a person."
She intends to stay involved in gymnastics but will now take those lessons learned and enriching experiences into the classroom.
Artz did her student teaching this school year at a pair of Ann Arbor elementary schools, assisting with kindergarteners at Bryant in the first semester and third-graders at Pattengill during the current semester.
She said Betsy Warner, the field instructor from the university, and Bryant kindergarten teacher Deborah Joseph impacted her greatly.
"Deborah Joseph welcomed me into her class with open arms, guided me through a lot of things and taught me a lot both inside and outside the classroom," said Artz. "It was a phenomenal experience that opened my eyes to what I wanted to do and what my future classrooms will run like.
"Betsy Warner (oversaw) everything I did and my assignments. It's been a hectic experience for me with gymnastics and school, and she had so much patience and flexibility with me, lowered my stress level and did a fantastic job of guiding me and giving me feedback while helping me develop as an educator.
"I've always wanted to do something with kids and thought being a pediatrician was going to be my route. But I chose a different path, and I love it. When I told my mom (Kim) that was what I was going to be, she said, 'I knew what it was going to be all along, but I couldn't tell you.'"
Her mother was a physical education teacher, and her father, Ken, is a certified public accountant and global controller for a manufacturing company. Nicole said her father enjoys displaying many of her awards and accomplishments in his office. Some are at the family home.
"The academic awards mean more to them than any of them," said Artz.
The "great journey" she's taken in academics and athletics helped her find her purpose.
"The experience at Michigan has been fantastic," said Artz. "Michigan promised me a balance between academics and athletics and held true to that my whole four years here. I've been able to create relationships and learn so many valuable skills.
"Michigan has prepared me for the future. I want to thank everyone who has supported me here and my family. I appreciate all they've done for me."
Now, she needs to get used to being called "Miss Artz" by her young students.
"That is still very odd to me," Artz said with a chuckle. "When I coached gymnastics, I was Miss Nicole or Coach Nicole, but now I'm Miss Artz, and that's okay."