Cover Story, March 2016

Nikki Caldwell Fargas: Called to Coaching

by Krista Bordelon

caldwellnikki1“There is an obligation that, as a woman, we just carry a lot more than men will ever imagine. But we have a gift to give, and as long as I’ve got life to live in this body it is going to be a life of service to others.”

One of the hardest struggles with faith for many is balance. The busyness of daily life, our families, our careers, even our ministries, take up most of our time leaving few hours to focus on our personal walk with Christ. So, how does Nikki (Caldwell) Fargas balance her prestigious career as head coach for the Lady Tigers basketball program, her role as a wife to her husband, Justin, and mom to their daughter, Justice, and her faith?

Nikki was raised in a small town in Oak Ridge, Tenn., by a single mother. Church was not just a “Sunday occurrence” for her family. Five generations of her family had attended Spurgeon Chapel.

“When you grow up and your great-grandmother was exposed to so much, your faith is very strong because of so much that they had to endure. As a minority that’s what you kind of fell back on to get you through the day,” Nikki says. “It was your faith and belief that there is a purpose and a plan. It strengthens the foundation of your family when it starts way back with your great grandparents. You knew on Sundays exactly what you were going to do, where you were going to be, what you were going to wear, and you had to participate. I can’t sing a lick, but I was in the choir.”

She describes church as an understood aspect of her life just like sports. “I had choir practice just like I had basketball practice. I had to go to church on Sunday, the same as I was expected to practice my free throws. It was a part of us. It was something we shared as a family, and that is the part I regard the most: the foundation instilled in me from such a young age.”

With her career she has definitely had to get more creative. They have a weekly Bible study with her staff, and having her daughter enrolled at Parkview Baptist gives her the opportunity to talk about Christ even at the tender age of 3 because of the papers sent home from the school. “I love that we get to go through readings together, they make it so easy. It’s been so good to be able to have that interaction with her. They’ve [children] got to see you because they remember a lot of it.”

FargasNikki4976As far as faith and coaching Nikki says, “You know when you know your calling? This is my calling. This is what I’m supposed to be doing. When I wasn’t doing coaching I just felt this overwhelming need to do more. I’ve been very blessed to have that round little ball in my life to allow me to have the opportunities I’ve had.”

“Basketball is a vessel to reach our young kids. To me, when you find what you are supposed to do in this life it’s not work, it is very easy. It’s very easy to juggle all these different hats because that’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s a lifestyle I live and He has allowed me to use all my teachings and all my experiences, good and bad, to help guide these ladies to make good decision and prepare them for life after basketball. I can let them know they are beautiful inside and out. That we just happen to be women who play basketball, but being a woman isn’t an easy thing and I can help them with that.”

“I’m just a little bridge. I get these girls for four years, and I want to make sure I send them out prepared.” Nikki does this by modeling for her girls exactly how she expects them to be treated and treat others. She holds them accountable as great ambassadors for the university and puts them in a position where they know to serve the community.

2015-2016, , ,“Community service is the biggest team bonding experience you could ever do.” She’s also a proponent on making sure they are grateful by exposing them to many different cultures and to see how others are living so they can be thankful for what they do have. In fact, Nikki has built a team of women from around the world. Five separate countries are represented on the team, including: Japan, Denmark, England, Australia, and the U.S. “We are probably one of the most diverse teams in women’s basketball. It’s very neat to bring these women from around the world and make a team and make a family out of them.”

Nikki views wins and losses as the superficial measurement of her career. “Wins and losses are not my judgment. My judgment is so much more than that. We are children of the Lord.” Nikki says her goal as a coach is to leave a lasting impact on these children so that they can in turn reach out and impact others.

“What you do in the dark will come to the light, so we need to make sure we are not in the dark places. I want to make sure I’m keeping our kids alive. I want to ask them every day, ‘What are you filling your tank with, where is your self-worth being held at?’ And just like I tell them, it’s not just do you have their back, but how do you have their back? We have to get into their world; we just have got to take that time to get into their world.”

“Even if I’m not necessarily talking about God, everything comes from a faith-based place to expose it. It could be spoken, or the power of touch or just listening. They know, and need to know, we will be there for them all the time,” she says. “Through perseverance you test your faith, and I really hope they know at the end of the day you’ve got to be able to lay your head down at night and feel good about what you did today. At the end of the day can you say, not from me and the assistant coaches, but you say, ‘Job well done,’ and pat yourself on the back? That’s what I want them to leave with from LSU.”

IMG_5798Nikki says her inspiration for balancing her own family came from seeing how coach Pat Summit balanced hers when she had Tyler, Nikki’s freshman year. “The good thing is my husband is retired, so we can travel as a family, and my mom took on the responsibility as ‘granny-nanny.’ If you said to me, ‘What would you like your set-up to be?’ I have a good foundation at home. I’m able to go out and do the work I’m doing knowing that home is safe.”

She says she has many coaches reach out and ask how she does it because it is not easy, and many have not been as fortunate as she has been when it comes to having the support and ability that she has had with her family. When asked how parenting has impacted her coaching, Nikki didn’t hesitate to say, “patience.”

“I don’t take for granted that that is someone’s child. I’m hopeful that I’m teaching them the way I would teach Justice. It also gives me perspective and she [Justice] brings everything back to reality.” As far as what she, as a leader, desires to see more of in leadership she says, “Be the person that shares your walk because it doesn’t get more truthful than that. If you’re not comfortable being vulnerable you cannot lead. I, personally, am not sure I’m going to be able to follow someone who hasn’t been there.”

Beyond that, Nikki says it is all about truly getting to know people beyond the surface, and finding a common denominator between you and that person. You have to be in tune with those you are leading and not always wait for them to come to you, but know when to go to them. “It all goes back to being vulnerable. I’m a basketball coach, but that’s not who I am. I have to share that with others. We’re all human here. I can’t be anything other than Nikki.”

“When you are struggling, and I’ve done this, get in your closet and have your good old-fashioned come to Jesus meeting. Just me and you [Jesus], stripping yourself bare, saying I need your help, and then getting yourself there. I’m doing what He wants me to do. I ask Him to guide me and He has not steered me wrong,” she says. “I’m talking about what college to attend and when to go or not go into coaching, everything I have placed on Him. This is the conversation [with God] I have to have because I am responsible for so many more lives than just my own. It’s things that won’t show up on a box score, that will never be printed on the front page of a sports column, that will never be tweeted, or retweeted, or liked, or commented on, those are the things we need to get at.”

Learning For Life, October 2015

Tori Bliss: Running Toward the Lord

by Krista Bordelon
02-27-15 MWTR SEC Indoor Championships LSU senior Tori Bliss celebrates, Friday, February, 27, 2015, after winning the shot put title and setting a new meet record of 60 feet, 1 inch at the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Kelly Price
02-27-15 MWTR SEC Indoor Championships
LSU senior Tori Bliss celebrates, Friday, February, 27, 2015, after winning the shot put title and setting a new meet record of 60 feet, 1 inch at the SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships in Lexington, Ky.
Photo by Kelly Price

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” Ephesians 3:20

To Tori Bliss, a 5th year senior at LSU and Portage, Ind. native, this verse means that even in our best, God can do so much more, and she is living her life in pursuit of “more”. Living to embrace every aspect of her life in a way that can be used for God’s glory.

Tori says she has just one message she would like to share, a message that there is purpose in the failure and to accept both the good and the bad in our lives with equal recognition.

“Don’t be afraid of failure. The more you grow and understand God, the more you know that He will boast in our weakness. Recognize failure as growth. Recognize wrong and move on.” Perfection is not the goal; just embrace who you were created to be. Live life based on your talents and your strengths as well as know your own weaknesses and struggles.

“Be the girl that everybody looks at and says, ‘Man, she’s so good [at whatever it is you are doing]. Embrace being talented too, it’s not a bad thing or something to be ashamed of.” For Tori, her talent has provided her with many opportunities, and her failures have helped her become a better person. That is what life is all about for her.

In 7th grade, Tori became involved with track and field, focusing on shot put and discus. Now, as she is moving on into the professional level you can see the strength, training, and endurance that such a sport has required of her throughout the years. She describes it as a “big picture” sport. The weight of the shot put doesn’t change from high school to pro, so the focus becomes developing your technique, your control, your strategy, and your endurance.

It is a high pressure, high stress, low spotlight event for the athletes who compete, so it simply out of love for the sport and not for the money that is to be made in the “flashier” events. In fact, she will be working in order to support herself while training and competing at the professional level.

Unlike other sporting events, Tori still hasn’t hit her peak. “It’s just a waiting game to see when someone will hit that big throw. It could be at any moment, and then you’ve got to step up your game.” Compared to only 4 years in college to develop on that level, a professional has 10-15 years to develop and the athletes usually hit their peak at a higher age than most sports (around 27-29). Her PR now is 60′ 8” (well above the average college woman’s throw of 53′-55′) and she will need to push herself into the 63′-65′ range.

MHEJYQFITJODKNZ.20150228040122-2As she describes the event and all that it entails, it is easy to see the parallels outlined in Scripture for Christian living, discipline, and endurance, and Tori has used her position to speak to the glory of God through it all.

“I was raised as an only child in a single parent, non-Christian home. I had cousins who went to Christian school, so my only exposure was their [school] plays. It isn’t like it is here in the south, where everyone goes to church whether they are a Christian or not.” Her first real exposure to Christ was when a fellow athlete invited her to Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). “Everyone was so nice, talkative, and friendly.”

At a time when she was struggling to feel “at home” here in Louisiana, FCA provided her with a chance to build relationships with others and form a relationship with Christ. She had the opportunity to witness her teammate, Kaitlyn Moreau, get her life completely turned around by God at the college athlete retreat.

“God just totally wrecked her, and she just became on fire, and her fire hasn’t really dimmed since then, and that was in 2012. God used her in a huge way to show me how powerful He was.” Later, at an FCA meeting, Tori felt a huge tug on her heart and gave her life to Christ.

IMG_2827-2“The feeling that I had was insane. I felt like right then and there I could run a marathon. It was radiant.” Like many other Christians, at one point Tori self admittedly “shied away” a bit in her faith. She had met a lot of friends, had grown comfortable here in Louisiana, was having a great season, and was doing a lot of partying. When, in a huge upset, she didn’t make finals, she was instead given a different opportunity. In what would have been the week of nationals, she instead attended FCA camp and had the opportunity to lead a middle school group. “God used that and I realized I needed to keep God at the center of my life. From then on was when things changed and I became secure in Him.”

She is now on leadership for FCA and volunteers at Healing Place Church with the children’s ministry. “I’ve noticed that when things are going bad, it’s because I haven’t been pursuing God the way I should. I hadn’t been taking advantage of my opportunities.” Since she did not grow up in a Christian environment, Tori finds great joy in seeing children’s hearts so open and receptive to the gospel.

“They have such a child-like faith; just believing, no questioning. They don’t have to argue within themselves yet about all of the beliefs that they have that go against what they are learning about God.” Tori describes a major turning point in her Christian leadership when she realized that it wasn’t a “competition” (something hard for an athlete not to focus on).

“You don’t have to worry about how many people you are getting to come [under your leadership], you focus on who you have, stay focused in prayer, prepare your heart for whatever God has planned. Once I realized that, my small group grew to three times as many people as I had before.” Her mantra became “Not my words” something that each Christian should be living by. “My heart was focused on pride and success, so He wasn’t ready to give me that. I was speaking and thriving on a response, versus changing lives and pointing people to God.”

Now Tori lives her life one way, running toward the Lord in all that she does.