On May 18, 2018, Nicole Rajic walked with her class at Fordham University to receive her Bachelor of Business Administration from the Gabelli School of Business. Like every other student there, she was happy to graduate. And she was especially happy for her Slovakian parents, proud of their daughter for earning her American college degree — the first in their family.
But it was not an ordinary journey. It was a journey book-ended by the Olympics in Sochi in 2014, where she finished 24th in the short program and in PyeongChang in 2018, finishing 14th. She is also a three-time Slovakian national champion. It might be the first such journey for any college student — not to mention a student who earned her business degree majoring in global finance and minoring in mathematics. Rajic seems as comfortable practicing an axel jump as she is preparing an analytical forecast.
NOT YOUR TYPICAL OLYMPIC SKATER ON CAMPUS
Rajic has been skating since she was three years old, but unlike most other Olympic skaters, she has done everything possible to be as much of a student as a competitor. “I loved being just another girl on campus,” she admits. Most athletes on the international figure skating circuit have been home-schooled or, after high school, delay their education to concentrate on skating full-time. But Rajic was having none of that. She liked school so much that she would only consent to a gap year between high school and college. “I was so excited to go to school after not being in class for a year,” she says. “I was really happy to sit down and study and regrow my brain cells, and I found myself being a better skater when I had school to think about. It kept me on a set schedule, and I was a whole lot more productive on the ice, knowing I had limited time to do everything.”
The college experience was quite a contrast with her year off, the year she trained for the Sochi Olympics.
“That was the worst year of my life,” Nicole says. “I was 18 years old and all I did was skate. I was bored and felt unproductive, and I felt my brain cells dying. My parents always supported me in my education; they also considered skating to be a reward as I was growing up so that I would bring home good grades. I always loved to go to school, I loved learning, and I always loved math and science.”
Rajic enjoyed Fordham, taking classes at the school’s pastoral Rose Hill campus for her first year, and then transferring to the Lincoln Center campus on the west side of Manhattan. She chose Fordham and the Gabelli School in part because of the location. She had been training hard with her coach, Igor Krokavec, over the bridge in Hackensack, New Jersey, and wanted to continue with that routine during her college years. “I didn’t want to change my entire life,” she explains.
Still, she was interested in taking her studies seriously, especially as she was set on getting an analytics-focused education. “I actually applied to college as an engineer because I liked math and science. I got into a couple of engineering programs, but I didn’t really think I wanted to be an engineer, and I thought the career prospects for math majors were mostly in academia. I chose the Gabelli School because I figured business would be a practical application of math.” Of the many business majors at Gabelli (including the business of sports), Rajic decided to major in finance because she “liked the more quantitative side of things. I found myself graduating more towards pricing, modeling and valuations,” she adds. Rajic’s favorite professors were Joseph Zirpolo and James McCann, both industry professionals, who focused on practical applications of finance.
“Professor Zirpolo and Professor McCann both did a great job of introducing me the applications of finance outside of the classroom,” Rajic says. “They emphasized many topics that would be necessary to know in the real world. Professor Zirpolo only taught a one credit finance course, but it was probably the most valuable course I took during college. Professor McCann taught a class called ‘Investments and Securities.’”
THE 6 A.M. TO 9 P.M. GRIND
Few Olympians would also be able to say they liked mathematics so much that they chose it as their minor. At Fordham, to major in math, the student has to take six courses in that department, three of which are more advanced. Rajic chose discrete math, linear algebra, and multivariable calculus for the upper level courses — studying after practice or in between during rest sessions.
It was grueling. Days began at 6:30 a.m., included multiple practices and class sessions and homework and often lasted till 9 p.m. or later.
RAISED IN AMERICA WITH SLOVAK ROOTS
During her jam-packed college years, Rajic learned a lot more than just finance and math and goal-driven time management. She also had some team dynamics to figure out. Rajic’s parents had come over from Slovakia and moved to the New York area in 1988. Rajic, born and raised in the U.S., skated in the U.S. and competed on the U.S. circuit, didn’t began competing for Slovakia until 2012. She had to earn her way in, not just with championship wins, but by being a true Slovak.
“When I started skating for Slovakia, people in the skating and athletic community weren’t quite so warm and welcoming in the beginning. It was like, ‘oh it’s the American; she’s coming to take our spots on the international stage.’ But once they realized that I’m just another person, just another skater and that I truly am a Slovak girl, I was part of Team Slovakia,” Rajic says. “I speak the language and I was raised with Slovak roots; my entire extended family lives in Slovakia. Once the nay-sayers realized that I was also benefitting the entire skating Slovakian community, they started to be more receptive and warm, and they finally started taking me in as one of their own. Which was amazing. And after that I felt no pressure to impress them.”
Those Interpersonal leadership skills have given her a chance to perform around the world as a global citizen as well. Since Sochi, she has competed in Austria, China, Croatia, Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Poland, Slovenia, South Korea, Sweden, and the U.S.
As someone fluent in Slovakian, Nicole has made an effort to not only converse in Czech and Polish, but made it her goal to learn Russian after competing in Sochi. “Most of the Russian skaters don’t speak much English, so I can communicate with the Russians in their language. They are really humble and friendly.”
LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
Figure skating is a sport where you are judged by deductions based on the number and gravity of mistakes. Imagine baseball measured only on errors or basketball scored only on fouls. Says Rajic, “In figure skating, no one is looking at the nice things you are doing; they are looking for the mini-errors, the tiny mistakes that a normal observer may not catch. So every time I’ve gone to practice, even if I thought a jump was good, my coach would say, ‘you were off to the left a little bit…fix this, fix that.’” Like any sport with intense training for competition, the skater has to be able to learn from feedback and incorporate it. “I’ve trained myself to look out for mistakes,” Rajic continues, “because when something is perfect, then what do I have to work on?”
Having spent years looking at and working on mistakes, Rajic sees that constructive criticism as a way to learn. “When I’m criticized, I say ‘thank you very much.’ That’s how my brain ended up being wired.”
She’s also learned to take in stride that it is possible to fall down — in front of millions of people — get back up, and keep skating. “We sometimes don’t have any other option,” Rajic says. “If you fall in competition you don’t have a choice but to get up and keep going because … well, you can’t really get off the ice.” All skaters are trained to get back up after a fall, but with the world looking, it takes some composure to stay focused. Almost every skater has had an unfortunate fall. “I’ve fallen and been embarrassed for myself and don’t want to see people afterwards, but in reality everyone comes up and gives you a hug and says ‘you’ll do better next time!’”
A SUPPORTIVE COMMUNITY
Rajic admits that she wouldn’t be able to have completed school and compete in two Olympics without the support of others. In addition to her parents, younger sister, and college friends, she is especially thrilled by the support of her dean, Vincent DeCola, the assistant dean for the Gabelli School of Business, and the dean for the business school’s Lincoln Center campus. When Rajic wanted to accelerate her degree so she would be able to graduate in December 2017, she had to ask special permission from Dean DeCola to take an advanced calculus course the previous summer. He gave his permission with the proviso that the mathematics department approved. “So I sent over the syllabus for the Calc 3 class asking if I could take it during the summer so I wouldn’t have to take it while training for the Olympics,” Rajic offers as if this were the most normal request in the world. Permission granted.
Now, four years later, and after having completed school and receiving her diploma, Rajic can’t believe it’s over. “It was really quick,” she says. “It’s as if I started last week. I cannot believe that three-and-a-half years of school went by so fast!”