Dressed in a pink shirt and flowy skirt, Oak Harbor High School Athletic Director Nikki Luper looked picture perfect summer — relaxed, comfortable and nearly carefree — the day she met up with OH Magazine contributor Jill Johnson.
That isn’t to say that she’s been taking the summer easy. Goal oriented and focused, she’s been in a self-described “nesting mode” completely transforming her home with renovations.
“My home is really my sanctuary and I like it to represent me,” she said.
Her home’s new traditional styling is not unlike Nikki herself.
“We all grew up around the family business so there’s a very strong work ethic,” she said.
Her mother worked, so in the summer, the kids were given a daily list of chores to accomplish before she returned.
“Everybody just did it,” Luper said. “Our thought was ‘let’s hurry up and get it done so we can play.’”
Despite being the youngest of six kids growing up in Lewiston, Idaho, she was no princess (a label she is quick to pass off to her sister). But she does acknowledge using her baby-of-the-family status to give her an edge.
“I was able to sit back and watch a lot of their mistakes and say, ‘note to self … do not do that,'” she said. “So I had the joy of watching them all make mistakes and learning from them.”
For anyone close to her, they’ll tell you, this childhood story is quintessential Nikki Luper.
OH: Briefly share with us your career background.
NL: My first teaching job was in Washougal. I was a physical education and health teacher. After Washougal I went to Sultan and that’s where I got my first administrative job.
OH: What attracted you to Oak Harbor?
NL: That it was a fulltime athletic director job. I knew this was something I wanted to do because it has been a passion of mine for a long time. The other part was the location. I have always wanted to live near the ocean. And then, when I researched the district and learned about the modernization of the high school and the construction of the new stadium I knew those things indicated a strong level of community support. That was important to me. I didn’t want to go somewhere the community didn’t support their schools.
OH: So you are happy with your decision to move here?
NL: Absolutely. The thing I so much appreciate is the level of community support for these kids. People support the programs, whether it’s music, athletics, drama, or ROTC … I think it’s just great. All of these opportunities for kids are what keep them involved with school and keep them involved with their community.
OH: What’s the atmosphere like at OHHS?
NL: Incredible. The people I work with are a key reason. They are great. They are all professional but still like to have fun. They care about kids, and when it comes down to it, that’s why we are all in this business. We care about these kids and their success.
OH: What were your first impressions of the community?
NL: When I first came up and I was looking at houses, every time I met someone they asked, “Are you just here visiting?” and I would say, “No, I’m moving here.” Every time I hear “welcome to the island.” I heard that so many times and that really impressed me. I have never moved anywhere the people were so friendly.
OH: Have any of your initial impressions about the community changed after being here for a year?
NL: No. I still love being here. Someone asked me the other day if I was happy with my decision and I said ‘very.’ This is where I want to be.
OH: How long do you plan on staying in Oak Harbor?
NL: Until I retire. I really like it here.
OH. What are your duties as the Athletic Director?
NL: My responsibilities are employees, coaching staff and then facilities. Making sure they are all up and running and reserved, that we do what we need to do with them and that they are safe. I also represent the district at league meetings, facilitate the use of the stadium (that has been a huge piece), and manage the athletic budget. I also coordinate all the little details of post-season playoffs.
OH: What was your biggest surprise about the job?
NL: I don’t think there has been a really big surprise. I knew what I was getting into. But what I have been most appreciative of has been the people I work with. I couldn’t ask for a better administrative team, secretary, stadium coordinator, you name it, they are great people.
OH: What was the biggest misconception?
NL: Transition from a small school to a large school. I think there is the idea that it can’t be done. But it can be done. In a small school you have fewer people doing the same jobs; it’s just that at a bigger school things are done on a larger scale. So that idea that you can’t transition isn’t true. I gained a lot of hands on experience coming from a smaller school.
OH: What are your goals for the OHHS Athletic Program?
NL: Increase participation numbers. That’s number one. Continue to improve facilities, including our baseball, softball and tennis courts. Getting us through the high school remodel and the rebuilding that weight room. Right now I am really trying to focus on the direction we want that facility to go and the program we want to run in there. We need to give our kids that strength edge that we are missing right now in all of our sports.
OH: In this town there has been a lot of tension between the roles of athletics vs. education. Where do you stand on this issue?
NL: They are student athletes. They are students first and they are athletes second.
OH: Talk about Title IV, what are some of the impacts this has had on athletics?
NL: If we did not have Title IV, athletics for women would not be at the stage it’s at. Would I still like to see more opportunities for women post-high school and collegiate? Yes. But, I feel very fortunate in the fact that we have had women who had a vision for the importance of athletics and what they offer young women.
I do not, however, like what I am seeing at the collegiate level with current trends to cut athletic programs to balance things out. That concerns me. And the number one sport that is cut right now is men’s wrestling. For wrestlers, there are not many opportunities post-high school. So I have some concerns with the interpretation of the law but I do think it was a needed thing.
OH: Which of our athletic programs is most underrated and deserving of a fan following?
NL: Track and Field. But, I’m partial because that’s what I did. The other program that doesn’t get enough recognition is our swim program. It really has some very successful students that don’t get as much recognition, but part of that is the venue. It’s a hard venue to fit a crowd.
OH: You think tradition plays an important role in athletics?
NL: I do. You know one of the things I liked right away when I was interviewing and on my tour of OHHS was the Hall of Fame. I am really big on tradition because what it does is it sends a message to these kids that; “Hey, if they can do that, then we can too.”
OH: Describe your favorite OH day?
NL: Sunny, 70ish degrees, a little breeze in the evening and time to take the dog for a walk on the beach.
OH: What type of dog is Max?
NL: A Shitzu… and with all the attitude
OH: They say people pick dogs that reflect them. Comments?
NL: It’s true! We are both stubborn. But he’s a good buddy.
OH: You’re planning a dinner party and can invite five of the greatest athletes, coaches, announcers of all time, who’s on your list?
NL: Mac Wilkins, Jackie Joiner-Kersey, Billy Jean King, I would invite my friend Bob Shacklett. He’s my former boss, and my throwing coaches from high, Wade Hillman, and Mary Jacobson. Oh wait, I want to change one of my answers. Take out Billy Jean King and put in Michael Jordan. I’ve read a lot of his stuff and he’s fascinating man. He’s someone who overcame some obstacles and never gave up.
OH: Athlete that you most admire?
NL: Larry Bird.
OH: Because you both have read hair?
NL: (laughs) No. It’s the fact that he always played with composure and he was an amazing talent. He was just class all the way and he let his game speak for itself.
OH: Other than sports and your job, what are you passionate about?
NL: I love decorating my home and doing things around my house to make it mine.
OH: What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year?
NL: I just read an interesting book called “Water for Elephants.” (pauses) You know actually the best book I’ve read recently, “How to Make the Big Time Where You Are” by Frosty Weltering. It’s a quick read with a great message.
OH: What is people’s biggest misconception about you?
NL: Sometime I get very focused on the task, and I think that can come off as not being approachable. I get tunnel vision and I just want to fix whatever the problem is and move on and make sure that things are going well. It’s really important to me that things go really smoothly. So I hope people know they can just stop me.
OH: Do you think that intense focus comes from being an athlete?
NL: I think that, and being from a family that owned and operated a family business. I think it’s that work ethic. My attitude is I gotta get this fixed and we gotta make it work.
OH: Every athlete and coach has a favorite quote. What’s your favorite?
NL: “If you think you can’t or can, you’re right.” You know, we forget that kids don’t always have a lot of confidence. That’s something I always want to give my athletes. And to get that, the one rule is that you can never say I can’t. You can say you’re having trouble but not “I can’t.” They can.