Maya Nikolova is a planner. As the assistant coach for the North Texas swimming and diving team, Nikolova will order all the team gear for the entire year in August. In late summer, she will plan out the entire meet schedule by booking all the hotels for the entire year, lock in the best deal for airfare and put together all the charter bus contracts.
"You have to multi-task," says Nikolova. "You can't be a good assistant coach unless you multi-task."
In fact, Joe Dykstra's first impression of Nikolova after he accepted the head coach position at North Texas in May of 2006 was that she was extremely organized. He flew down to Denton, Texas for a quick visit to meet the team and tour the area and the University.
When he arrived, she had a folder waiting for him. Inside, she had put together biographical information on every single swimmer on the team and what time he was meeting with each of them. She had even scheduled a lunch for the two of them.
"That was my first impression of Maya and that is everything that she has done for the last three years," said Dykstra. "If there is one word I would use to sum up Maya, it is helpful. She is extremely organized, extremely loyal and one of the hardest-working people I have ever met."
While the head coach is the face of the program at colleges, the assistant coach is the behind-the-scenes player that does a lot of the grunt work. Assistant coach duties might include putting travel together, figuring out meals, ordering gear, going out on recruiting trips and organizing official visits. They might be the middle person between the head coach and the players. They usually have an open door policy with the players, listening to their on-and-off field problems.
Nikolova does all those things and more. She started out as an assistant coach at North Texas during the summer of 2004 under the former head coach and has worked the last three and half years with Dykstra. She has seen the lows and has been crucial to the current highs of the North Texas swimming program. And she does it all with a smile.
"What I most appreciate about Maya is how much fun she is," said Dykstra. "She and I have a great time working together. It is one thing I try to instill with my team: we are going to work as hard or harder than anyone else but we are going to have fun while we do it. She has embraced that philosophy with the team and the office. Coaching should be a fun endeavor."
Interim Head Coach
And yet there was a brief time that Nikolova probably would have said that coaching was not fun. Prior to Dykstra's arrival, Nikolova served as the interim head coach of the Mean Green in the early months of 2006 when a search was underway for a new head coach.
Nikolova admits it was a stressful period. She had just started graduate school and was settling into her life at North Texas, but she didn't know if she would have a job past May.
Nikolova was asked to finish up the spring 2006 season with the team. The search for the head coach position took longer than expected and as the spring ended, Nikolova began recruiting for the fall season even though she didn't know if she would be there. A new head coach usually likes to bring in their own assistant.
"At some point, you put your interests aside and look at what is the best for the program and its future," said Nikolova. "I tried to put my things aside. I knew I wanted to stay here, but I tried to do my best job to finish up the season and get the best recruits to come here."
What Nikolova did next, was bring in the best recruiting class in school history up to that point. Alicia Hale, Nicole Leslie and Emily Floyd would prove to be the backbone of the Mean Green swimming and diving program over the next four years.
"It's so hard to put a value on what those kids have brought to the program," said Dykstra. "They are all seniors now, hold a lot of our school records and have made huge improvements. She worked real hard in identifying good people and I always say there is element of luck in recruiting. A little bit of luck goes a long way but the harder you work the luckier you get. I think that was the case with Maya and that recruiting class."
Not only was Nikolova able to recruit a crop of talented newcomers, but she did it without a head coach. The swimmers agreed to come to North Texas before Dykstra was named the head coach.
"I think one of the big things for me was that I liked the team," said Floyd about her decision to come to North Texas. "Maya had put together a good team. She was so informative and helpful during the whole process. She said she would do everything she could to help us out. Maya and the whole team atmosphere made it easy to choose North Texas."
The Dykstra Era
Coaching became a lot more fun once Dykstra was hired. Nikolova, who was involved in the search, knew right away he was the one.
"He was the guy," said Nikolova. "He was the most organized so I knew right away we would get along because I am a very organized person."
Nikolova says that Dykstra created a fun, positive atmosphere that made her want to work that much harder. And she knew that someone believed in the girls.
It took a couple months but the team of Dykstra and Nikolova quickly began to gel. Nikolova said the girls responded right away to him, which made her job that much easier.
One of Nikolova's favorite moments was the first conference tournament after Dykstra arrived. The team had posted its highest point total in school history and the athletes had swum a number of personal bests. There was a lot of tears, but they were tears of happiness.
"When you see the smiles on their faces, you realize that is why you wake up so early and work so many hours," said Nikolova. "My job is done when they are satisfied and happy."
Nikolova tries to do as much as she can to lighten Dykstra's load as the head coach of a division I program. She says she does a little of everything, which includes the paperwork, travel, trips, meals, keeping the girls informed, academics, study hall, setting up official visits, helping with recruiting, and sometimes acting as a therapist.
A Day In The Life
An average day for Nikolova starts at 5:30 a.m. She can't recall many days since 2000 when she started school at Fairmont College in West Virginia of sleeping in past 5:30 a.m. From the moment the first practice starts at 6:30 a.m., there is no stop in Nikolova's day. After practice, there is paperwork in the office, then back to practice, and then to study hall from 5-9 p.m.
Not only does Nikolova oversee her own swimmers at study hall, she also tutors other student-athletes.Since her arrival in 2004, she thinks she has tutored hundreds of student-athletes, around 40 a semester, in economics, microeconomics, marketing, management and computer classes and any level of math.
She also has found time over the last three years to complete her MBA at North Texas.
There is lots of coffee involved in Nikolova's life.
We are both avid coffee drinkers," said Dykstra. "Some of the other head coaches give me a hard time because I think I am the only one that brings their assistant coffee on a regular basis. When you have an assistant that works as hard as she does and does as good a job as she does, you have to do things that show your appreciation."
It did not take Dykstra long to figure out that Nikolova was a keeper.
"Two months into my first season, I saw how good she was on a daily basis. She interacted well with the dynamic of me and the team and she blended well into that. There was no way I was going to get rid of her. After my first year, I told her the job is yours as long as you want it."
And, so Nikolova has stayed and planned. She has seen and helped the Mean Green swimming and diving program develop into one of the top up and coming teams in the region. In 2009-10, the team has the depth and talent to compete for the conference championship for the first time in school history.
"I want to get up at 5 a.m. because I know we are going somewhere," said Nikolova.
The one thing that Nikolova has not been able to plan is her immigration status. A native of Bulgaria, Nikolova has been on a work visa at North Texas and has been going through the green card process for the last four years. Nikolova calls the process a roller coaster ride and hopes that she will get her green card by December. Hopefully, then she can begin to plan her wedding and the rest of her life.