BOULDER – When Liz Kritza arrived at Colorado from Tulane in 2009 to become CU’s volleyball coach, she brought plenty of memories with her – many pleasant, some at the darker end of that spectrum.
Kritza had been the Green Wave’s coach for one match of the 2005 season when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Those were among her darkest memories, and as she and her players became closer at her new school, Kritza began sharing some of them.
But this was Boulder, nestled at 5,430 feet above sea level at the base of the Rocky Mountains. Kritza conceded she was never sure that her stories of rising floodwaters, untold devastation and widespread heroism hit home with her CU players – not until 10 days ago.
Nikki Lindow had heard Kritza’s tales of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Tulane team’s forced relocation to College Station, Texas. Lindow might have even rolled her eyes once or twice; she was a self-described rodeo junkie, an aspiring barrel racer from Erie who had to be prodded into pursuing the sport that would earn her a college scholarship rather than hopping onto the rodeo circuit immediately after high school.
Lindow has learned a lot, undoubtedly grown a lot, over the past week and a half. Her coach’s stories of Tulane’s 2005 season now register more clearly. Kritza’s recollections of a community in shock, people helping people and teammates reaching out have come into focus.
Lindow’s story begins when the rains began falling on Wednesday, Sept. 11. “It was crazy on campus,” she recalled. “Students were saying it was exciting, they had never seen anything like this before. Nobody was thinking for a second it was going to be a national disaster.”
Or a personal disaster.
THE FIRST TELEPHONE CALL CAME on Thursday morning from her father, Robert, a long haul trucker for Walmart who was near Casper, Wyo., and growing uneasy with each weather report of torrential rain in the Boulder area and no letup in sight.
The Lindows – Robert, Sindy, Nikki and her half-brother Shane, now a game warden in Idaho – have willingly and lovingly saddled themselves to a nine-acre horse ranch in Erie. They board 18 horses, have a couple of historic barns (one was an old dance hall) and 24 years of memories packed into the place. Boulder Creek runs through the pasture land, making water plentiful.
On Thursday morning, Robert Lindow told his daughter to call her mother, who was alone on the ranch, and check on how the creek was running. “Mom said water is rising in the pastures but I think we’ll be OK,” Nikki remembered.
That same morning, the Buffs were scheduled to leave for Waco, Texas to compete against Appalachian State, Northwestern State and Baylor in the Baylor Invitational. After talking to her mother, Nikki believed she was safe in making the trip – but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t worried. Nevertheless, she boarded the bus with her teammates for the trip to DIA and Dallas.
Kritza knew something was wrong. “I looked back and ‘Nik’ was looking out the window, tears streaming down her face,” Kritza said.
The second telephone call came after the Buffs reached DIA. Robert Lindow asked his daughter, “Is there any way you can come home?" Nikki told her dad, "I just don’t know; we’re going to get to play Baylor and this is a huge game for us. I was like, ‘I can’t wait to get revenge on (Baylor) from the Big 12 when I was a freshman.’”
But Nikki told her father she would talk to Kritza. Then came a third telephone call – from Nikki’s mother. “She was crying; she said she was by herself and needed help,” Nikki said. “At that point I was really worried. I had no idea of what was going on (at the ranch).”
When the Buffs arrived at DIA, Kritza knew the only choice to be made. “The fact of the matter is, Nikki is so steady for her family,” Kritza said. “She knew where she had to be and so did I.”
The Buffs headed for security, their gate and Dallas. Nikki headed for a cab to Erie – and the real adventure began. The taxi driver couldn’t imagine what was in store. The trip to Erie took more than an hour and a half “through these rivers and lakes that had come out of nowhere on the highways,” Nikki said.
When they arrived at the Lindow’s ranch, Nikki’s father was already there, having driven straight through from Casper. He was on a tractor in the pasture, moving earth and trying to block the rising water and shore up structures. The taxi driver got Nikki as close as he dared to their property and her father pulled his tractor as close as he dared to the taxi and picked up his daughter.
After a day and much of the night on the ranch battling the floodwater, Nikki went to Boulder with her boyfriend to help him clear his flooded basement. She didn’t stay long; her mother called and said another wall of water had come through and their horses had to be evacuated. They made it back to Erie, and with the help of neighbors got all but one of the biggest horses into trailers.
The trip from their property to higher ground, said Nikki, was nightmarish. Traversing a ravine created by the flood, her father’s truck and the trailer he was hauling were swaying in the raging current. “It was the scariest thing I’ve seen in my life,” she said. “There was nothing we could do but keep going. If we stopped it could have picked the truck up.
“But we made it out with the neighbors helping us. Dad was shaking, mom and I were bawling . . . at that point we realized the material things don’t matter as long as everyone’s safe. We got out alive. We made it. We just let the water do what it was going to do.”
Lindow said the damage to their house and property was minimal compared to the devastation in the area. Most of the sand, she said, was lost from their arena and river rock was scattered across their property. “But our house was untouched; we're fine in our house. We felt bad because of what our neighbors were going through. We got very lucky. It’s very hard to complain.”
Later, on Friday, Sept. 13, Lindow telephoned Kritza, who asked if she could get back to the team. Lindow’s answer: “I would love to.”
AN 8 A.M. SATURDAY FLIGHT FROM DIA to Dallas was booked. Director of Operations Natalie Dedin picked up Lindow in Dallas for the two-hour drive to Waco. Said Lindow, a 6-2 senior middle blocker: “I got there, got dressed, ate a pregame meal and we played Baylor.”
Rejoining her team, said Kritza, was “a complete catharsis” for Lindow. “She had come from what was a catastrophic possibility for her and her family. She was exactly where she needed to be. She’s a tough, tough kid.”
But the previous 48 hours had taken an emotional toll. Lindow’s adrenaline surge almost matched Boulder Creek. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Warming up, trying to focus, going through the scout in my head . . . I’ve never shaken so much in my life,” she said.
“My whole body was shaking from the last three days of pure adrenalin. We hadn’t gone to bed until 4:30 in the morning for two days in a row. I was wound up. It was difficult to readjust and not try to do too much. Coach always tells me not to do too much. But I was flying; I’ve never jumped as high in my life. It was all pure adrenalin.”
Still, she contributed to CU’s 3-0 sweep of Baylor and the tournament championship. The Buffs had dispatched Appalachian State (3-2) and Northwestern State (3-0) in their Friday matches, but the win over the Bears sweetened the weekend. It ended an eight-match losing streak against Baylor, gave Kritza her first win against the Bears and sent the Buffs to 8-1 with their Pac-12 Conference opener at Utah looming on Tuesday.
CU’s eight-match win streak is the volleyball program’s fifth longest, and Lindow, who again leads the Buffs in blocks (29), says this team’s dynamic “it totally different . . . we’re a lot more competitive, more focused. All of us bring so much more to the table as players. (The seniors) have a connection now that we haven’t had and we’re showing younger players that we’re going to keep each other accountable no matter what.”
Kritza sees it as well. “It’s been building,” she said. “It takes a couple of recruiting classes, but this group is different – more athletic, more balanced. They’re excited (for Pac-12 play). They’ve been grinding for the last couple of seasons, now they’re seeing it come to fruition.”
Lindow’s final season already has been more emotional, more gratifying than she could have imagined. The volleyball staff’s reaching out to her and her family continued after the victorious weekend in Waco. On Tuesday night, knowing the Lindow’s hay crop was wet and in danger, Kritza, Dedin and the volleyball strength and conditioning staff drove to the ranch and pitched in moving 65- to 85-pound hay bales.
“Nikki was going to go out by herself after lifting (weights) that night,” Kritza said. “We thought she would be OK missing lifting . . . the whole team wanted to go help.”
“There have been a million people reaching out, but I can’t thank coach enough,” Nikki said. “I thank her for being able to accommodate my family; she knows how much our ranch means to us. Mom and dad had been there 24 years and knowing all that was on the line we were hoping and praying that it wasn’t all going to be gone. Coach is all about family coming first.”
Many coaches talk about it, but the Lindow family knows it’s not lip service. And they are grateful.