It started with tennis and a t-shirt.
Hannah Nielsen grew up playing all sorts of sports in Adelaide, Australia. It wasn’t until she was 11 years old, though, that she even heard of lacrosse.
“I actually played tennis with a girl who had a lacrosse t-shirt on, and I had no idea what the sport was,” Nielsen said. “She said I should come out and try it. I picked up a stick and never looked back.”
Nielsen quickly grew to love the toughness of the game. She loved playing in the heat of summer and in the dead of winter. She loved the running and the physicality. She loved playing in the mud.
By seventh grade, Nielsen was sold. Lacrosse would be her sport.
Today, Nielsen finds herself only weeks away from her first game as the second-ever Michigan women's lacrosse coach.
Joining the Brighton Lacrosse Club, Nielsen started her journey where other lacrosse greats began, including Loyola University Maryland women’s lacrosse coach Jen Adams.
Adams won the first ever Tewaaraton Award — the Heisman of collegiate lacrosse — in 2001 after her senior season at Maryland. There, Adams won four national championships and finished off her collegiate career with a perfect 23-0 season.
Nielsen wanted to follow suit.
“I remember at the time watching a highlight video of an Australian girl playing at Maryland and just thought, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” Nielsen said. “Pretty much from there through high school, I set my sights on getting to college.”
Five years later, Nielsen found herself at Northwestern. Though she always dreamed of becoming a Terrapin like Adams, Nielsen believed the Wildcats would be the team to beat.
Not only did Nielsen want to be a champion, but she wanted to be a champion in her own right. At Northwestern, she could pave her own path.
“Northwestern had just won its first national championship,” Nielsen said. “I could tell that the program was destined for great things, and had success in their future. It’s something that I felt I should be a part of, and at the end of the day I wanted to do something new. To do something that no other Australian had done.”
And that she did.
Nielsen graduated Northwestern with a perfect senior season like Adams. She bested Adams with not one, but two Tewaaraton Awards in both her junior and senior years.
She is the Wildcats’ all-time leader in points (398) and assists (224), and finished off her collegiate career with a 21-7 triumph over North Carolina for a fourth and final national championship. Nielsen remembers the win as her favorite on-field moment at Northwestern.
“It was icing on top of an incredible season,” she said.
Nielsen’s dominance on the lacrosse field didn’t stop there, though. In fact, it didn’t even begin there.
Before landing in Chicago, and before playing a single collegiate match, Nielsen was already a world champion.
Out of the 10 Women’s Lacrosse World Cups held since its inaugural year in 1982, the United States has won eight. In 2005, Nielsen and the rest of the Australian National Team beat out the Americans on their home turf in the gold-medal match, 14-7. She was just 17 years old.
This past summer, at 29, Nielsen competed in her fourth World Cup in England, and was selected to the 12 player All-World Team alongside four of her teammates, one being Adams.
“For me, there’s nothing better than playing for my country,” Nielsen said. “Getting to represent Australia — for anyone, representing your own country — I don’t think there’s anything better.”
Nielsen’s stellar career as a player has translated well into her quickly progressing coaching career. Before earning her first position as a head coach at Michigan this past summer, Nielsen was an assistant coach at her alma mater. Previously, she was on the coaching staff at Penn State and Towson, and helped start the women’s lacrosse program at Colorado in 2014 — the same year Michigan’s program began.
Ironically enough, the Wolverines open up their 2018 season against the Buffaloes in Jacksonville, Fla. on February 9th.
“It’s going to be kind of a crazy experience,” Nielsen said. “I’ve fortunately coached against them before, so it won’t be my first time. They still hold a very special place in my heart.”
This meeting will be Michigan’s third encounter with the Buffalos. The Wolverines dropped their first battle in a 14-13 double overtime thriller back in 2015. Colorado widened the gap the following year, dominating in an 11-4 showing.
Four seasons in, the Buffalos boast a .640 win percentage while Michigan sits at .290. Perhaps it was Nielsen that influenced Colorado’s quick progression. Either way, the matchup is shaping up to be a good one.
“The head coach is a very good friend of mine,” Nielsen said. “Both of us are very, very competitive, so we’re both going to want to win.”
And despite losing 14 seniors to graduation last season — most of whom were four-year starters — Nielsen thinks her team can win. She believe the Wolverines have athleticism on their side.
Michigan’s current coaching staff prides itself on being able to teach the game. If the players are athletic and have the will to win, Nielsen believes they will do just that.
“If I were to pick someone who’s got that killer instinct and athleticism over someone who’s got finesse and skill, I’m definitely going for that athleticism,” Nielsen said. “We like toughness. We like gritty players who aren’t afraid to do the dirty work that goes unnoticed.”
Luckily for Nielsen, the previous women’s lacrosse coach, Jennifer Ulehla, felt similarly. She recruited athletes and believed specific skills and lacrosse IQ could be taught.
So far, Nielsen says it’s all coming together.
From day one back in September through the end of fall ball, Nielsen has seen improvements all over the field. The Wolverines are beginning to click.
“The best moment so far was our last practice of the fall,“ Nielsen said. “To sit back as a coaching staff and see where we’ve come from and where we were at that point was really satisfying.”
And where will Michigan be in May when the season wraps up?
“Hopefully in a better place than where we started,“ Nielsen said. “I hope that we’ve progressed as a team and that we’ve got a strong belief in all of our values and our culture. Hopefully we’ve got some wins on the board, as well.”
Nielsen has had what one would call a storied career in the lacrosse world. Coming to Michigan, however, is not the end of the story. Coaching is simply her latest chapter.
“Honestly," Nielsen said, "the best moments are still to come.”