BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- It was no big deal, really, when Lynn University hired Niki Alvarez nearly a year ago. All she had to do was reinstate a women’s cross-country program that had been dormant for 11 years. Never mind the fact that she’d never coached cross country before. What she did have was a background as a four-time USA Triathlon All-American.

Oh, but there’s more. On top of that, she was also tasked with starting a women’s swimming program from scratch. No problem, right? Let’s just say that Niki Alvarez is a woman who likes -- no, loves -- a challenge.

“I did know what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I knew that it was going to be a lot of work, but with the support staff here and the support that Lynn offers, I knew that it was going to be possible to successfully start both. I felt it was the right opportunity and the right place to be successful with both programs.”

There have been plenty of challenges along the way. With a small roster of just seven swimmers -- two of whom are competing in the NCAA Division II Winter National Championships Festival -- the Fighting Knights regularly face teams with twice as many student-athletes.

That’s not necessarily a completely bad thing.

“I didn’t expect, honestly, to have such great groups of athletes, just as far as people go,” Alvarez said. “The other teams I’ve coached, there’s always been a little bit of drama. I honestly just got lucky here at Lynn, because I have really, really amazing athletes. That was a little bit less work than I expected. I expected maybe for there to be some headaches in that regard, and there hasn’t been. That’s been awesome.”

Another issue has been trying to recruit swimmers and cross-country runners for programs that didn’t exist prior to Alvarez’s hiring. Who do the new kids ask about coaches and campus life? There’s no record of achievement to boast, no banners hanging from the rafters, so to speak.

Tyne Potgieter, left, and Thalie Carmigniani
Lynn Athletics
Thalie Carmigniani Fr. Tours, France
Morgan Glazer Fr. Tallahassee, Fla.
Clairissa Myatt Fr. Naples, Fla.
Julia Pedersen Fr. Enkoping, Sweden
Tyne Potgieter So. Durban, South Africa
Bold: qualified for DII national championship

Then again, there’s something to be said for starting out together.

“Recruiting is definitely a challenge, but the group of athletes I got for both sports are such amazing women,” said Alvarez, who was an assistant men’s and women’s swimming coach at Florida Atlantic before coming to Lynn. “I think part of that is maybe because they came here for my philosophy of coaching and training. They knew what they were getting themselves into there.”

What, exactly, is Alvarez’s philosophy of coaching?

“I think that’s why Lynn is such a great fit for me,” she said. “Lynn’s philosophy and the Division II philosophy are really life in the balance. Lynn wants their student-athletes to have a good experience. I want that, too. I want them to leave Lynn feeling very positive about their college academically, but also athletically.”

That would seem to be a given for any college coach, not just Alvarez. With her, however, there’s a lot more to the story.

“I want them to have fun, but they also have to work hard,” she said. “Running fast is fun and swimming fast is fun. They have to work hard to get there. That’s what’s going to get them a good experience, when they have success running and swimming.

“I stay on them pretty good. I think all my athletes would tell you that, but we have a good time as well. I think that’s really my philosophy -- to be hard on them when I need to be, but also light-hearted and understanding.”

Two Lynn swimmers qualified for the DII Festival -- Tyne Potgieter from South Africa and Thalie Carmigniani of France. When they first qualified, Alvarez was just happy for them to be going to Birmingham.

But after practicing? Who knows what might happen ...

“I knew both of these girls had a shot. ... I knew that, but I also knew that they were going to have to swim well at the conference meet,” Alvarez said. “They both just had amazing meets. But then, you have a couple weeks of training and they’re training really well. They start to rest again. You start to get focused and think, ‘Wow. I think we could get in the top eight.’ I think just making the finals would be the goal.”