It was in 1999, while she was a flight attendant on a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, when her love affair with triathlons surfaced.
Kim Case-Nichols, now the executive director of space and facilities for the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV, remembers the large crowd exploding in cheers and chants as participants in a 140.6-mile Ironman Triathlon jostled for position as they ran along the Rhine River, heading for the finish line.
“I hadn’t planned on seeing the race — I just stumbled upon it,” she says. “There was so much energy. I was amazed they could be in such good shape to swim, bike, and run for miles. For years I thought about it, but I never thought I could achieve it.”
At first blush, her analysis seemed on the mark. She was in her 30s and had never participated in organized sports, let alone heavily trained in swimming, biking, or distance running.
Yet this June, at the age of 49 no less, four years after she raced in her first triathlon, Case-Nichols competed in her 10th such competition. This time it was an Ironman 70.3-mile race in Hawaii, where she completed a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run. She overcame the effects of a gusting 30 mph wind, 90-degree heat, severe cramping and painful coral pieces lodged in her feet to finish in the middle of the pack of her 45-50 age group.
Training for a 70.3-mile triathlon, Case-Nichols says, takes about 20 hours a week. To prepare for a full Ironman of 140.6 miles would take much more time, which Case-Nichols says simply isn’t possible with her work and family obligations.
So how has Case-Nichols, who only had beginning swimming lessons as a child but never swam competitively, been able to become an ardent devotee of the half Ironman 70.3 triathlon?
She credits both her husband, Bill Nichols — they wed in 2014 — and her mind.
“My husband is a cyclist and he got me on a bike for a leisure ride and I loved it. As I progressed with my cycling skills, I developed the confidence to add more sport into my life including running and swimming. For two years, I talked about doing a triathlon until one day in 2017 I simply signed up for an indoor triathlon at the gym and I was hooked.”
Today, she finds it a joy each week to undertake the two to three miles of swimming, 75 miles of cycling, and 15 to 18 miles of running that she finds necessary to prepare for a 70.3-mile triathlon — a race she completes in about eight hours. She trains over a six-month period for each competition.
“My mind is so much more powerful than I ever thought,” she says. “I’m able to accomplish things I never would have imagined I could do...I enjoy testing myself...Being in shape also helps my work. Psychologically, you feel you can do anything.”
The truth is, Case-Nichols’ strong will wasn’t first seen in athletics.
Not long after graduating from Columbia College in Chicago with a degree in film history — she did freelance work as a camera assistant for a couple of years — her desire to see the world resulted in her working for a decade as a flight attendant with the now-defunct ATA Airlines.
When she realized she’d prefer working on the ground instead of in the friendly skies, Case-Nichols decided she wanted to work in facilities operations, a field where 75 percent of the professionals are men. To her, it wasn’t as much of a change as it was a transition.
“As a flight attendant, you’re dealing with government regulations and codes, just as you do in facilities work. In both areas, you’re dealing with customer relations and preparing for emergencies. Now I’m just helping people become more comfortable on the ground.”
Administrators at Stanford University, where only 10 percent of facilities professionals were women, appreciated her reasoning and hired her in 2006. For four years she held jobs there in student housing facilities. Learning how to repair everything from pinholes in pipes to replacing main electrical switch gears as she managed student housing maintenance, Case-Nichols completed an MBA at night and on weekends as she developed a preventive maintenance program for 350 residences, offices, and dining facilities at Stanford.
When a position opened up in 2010 at UNLV for an assistant director in student affairs maintenance, Case-Nichols went after it. Three years after getting the position, she was promoted to director, becoming the first woman to hold the position that saw her managing a $2.3 million budget and supporting work at 17 buildings.
In 2017, she joined the medical school because of an “opportunity to make history.”
Now a key player in the planning of the Kirk Kerkorian Medical Education Building that is scheduled for completion next summer, Case-Nichols currently oversees an $8 million budget. In addition to the day-to-day facility response, she and her staff of five have completed over $5 million in remodel and tenant improvements, including a call center, COVID-19 test site, a new cardiology clinic, and a rebranding of the physical environment. In July, she received the Pacesetter Award from APPA (Association of Physical Plant Administrators) for her use of technology and promotion of diversity in the educational facilities management industry.
“The planning of our new medical building is immense and wildly exciting,” Case-Nichols says.
Wildly exciting is how she also found her preparation and participation in the Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Hawaii, a race that attracts competitors from around the world. Even today Case Nichols, who has hired a triathlon coach, marvels at how in the early days of training for the event, a bike ride of an hour and 30 minutes was considered long but by the last weeks of training, she was easily handling a ride of five hours and 30 minutes.
Going to Hawaii with her husband a few days prior to the competition, Case-Nichols completed a practice swim, bike, and run — although not back to back. After testing her equipment in the water, she also drove the 56-mile bike route to know what to expect.
“All through this, I got periodic butterflies of excitement and nervousness. Then I reminded myself that I live and train in Las Vegas winds, hills, and heat. (Her swim training is done in Lake Mead). I repeatedly told myself that I trained for this and I’m ready.”
Even if she wasn't tired, she went to bed early. “I do it to quiet my mind and still my body. I meditate and visualize the excitement of the race and crossing the finish line.”
Prior to race day, Case-Nichols also met Chris Nikic, the first person with down syndrome to ever complete a full Ironman triathlon. “I am completely inspired by Chris’ determination and his motto of focusing on each day to become one percent better.”
Race day, June 5, was hot with winds sometimes gusting above 30 mph. “Just before starting the swim, my belly was in knots. I reminded myself of the beautiful sea turtle and fish I swam with during practice the day before...I felt humbled...to have this experience.”
After the swim of over a mile in the Pacific Ocean — rolling, high waves caused her to nearly veer off course — Case-Nichols found she had stepped on coral as she walked out of the water. Unable to dig it out of her feet before biking, she realized she’d just have to deal with the pain.
Tense from fighting to control her bike in the wind — wind gusts caused several other riders to fall — Case-Nichols suffered cramping in her legs and back. When she got off her bike to begin the long-distance run, she could barely walk. A fellow racer saw her in pain and offered her packets of mustard to eat, a popular home remedy among athletes for cramps. While the scientific research hasn’t proven the efficacy of mustard, Case-Nichols says that after eating it, her leg cramping lessened so she could run the next 13.2 miles.
“I was so exhausted when I ran across the finish line,” she recalls. “But I’m not sure I could have done it without the racer helping me out. I’ve tried to find him and thank him for what he did, but so far I’ve had no luck. That’s the way triathlon racers are. We help each other to push through."