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Gail Nelson’s athletic and academic accomplishments were on display on this poster at the St. Paul Athena Awards banquet on April 24. (Photo supplied)

Gail Nelson, bound for Winona State University, captained Viking hoops and running teams

Gail Nelson, a three-season athlete who graduated from North Branch Area High School over the weekend, was honored last month as the school’s 2019 winner of the St. Paul Area Athena Award.

Schools throughout the metro choose one senior female athlete to receive the award, named after the Greek goddess of wisdom who was also associated with athletic endeavor.

Nelson, a captain of the Viking basketball and cross-country teams and a middle distance runner on the track squad, said she was humbled to find out she had been chosen, given the competition in North Branch’s class of 2019.

“I was just extremely thankful, and I was surprised, because we have a lot of great athletes in our class,” Nelson said.

Nelson played basketball from her elementary school years all the way through this last winter season. She played softball when she was younger, but was convinced to give running a try by a softball coach, 2014 NBAHS graduate Casey Hovland — herself a multi-talented athlete, who transformed from a state-qualifying high school gymnast into an All-American runner at the College of St. Scholastica.

“It was the summer before my freshman year and I just wanted to stay in shape, so I just started running, and [Casey Hovland] said I should try out for cross-country,” Nelson said. “It worked pretty good.”

Nelson ran mainly in the No. 2 spot for the Vikings last fall, behind freshman Cora Hudella. Hudella was part of Nelson’s favorite running memory, when they teamed up with two other Vikings and dominated a 4x800-meter relay race at the 2018 Chisago Lakes Relays.

“We won by at least half a lap,” Nelson said.

She cited the Vikings’ annual trip to a winter break tournament in Little Falls as a highlight of her time with the varsity basketball team. The tournament was canceled this past season due to snowstorms, but the Vikings were able to reschedule a game against a planned opponent in the tournament, Staples-Motley. The ending to that game, a 54-53 Viking victory, provided Nelson’s favorite individual moment on the court: She created the 1-point margin of victory with a game-winning foul shot with three seconds left on the clock.

Although her North Branch career has come to an end, Nelson wants to work in the sports world in the future. She will head to Winona State University in the fall to pursue a degree in athletic training.

“I love the scenes down there, and they have a really nice campus,” Nelson said. “I have a cousin that went there, and they loved it.”

Another advantage of the Winona athletic training program is the speed with which students can become highly qualified in the field. Nelson will be able to follow an accelerated course of study that will award her a bachelor’s degree in movement science after three years and a master’s degree in athletic training two years later.

Hitting the books hard should be no problem for Nelson, who graduated with distinction, a title requiring a GPA of at least 3.9. When she wasn’t on the court, course or track, Nelson was a member of the National Honor Society, symphonic band and Link Crew, a program wherein older students help incoming freshmen make the transition to high school. She was also a founding member of the Captain’s Club, a group of athletic leaders from the various Viking teams.

Nelson’s physical talents and her status as a quick study combined in one other pursuit this year.

Asked if there was anything else people ought to know about her, North Branch’s Athena said: “I learned to juggle in like two weeks.”

The Athena Award winners from the various participating schools are honored at a luncheon in St. Paul every spring. This year’s ceremony was held at Vadnais Heights Commons on April 24. North Branch joined the Athena program in 2015. Prior award winners include Katy Trunk, Mikayla Johnson, Annie Gladitsch and Keeley Ertl.

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