Left: Nicole as a gymnastics student at Walnut Hill; Right: Nicole with her daughter, Tori Cargill '18
This month, we spoke with Nicole Gakidis, a 1981 graduate of Walnut Hill's former Gymnastics program. Now a current parent and active volunteer in our community, Nicole caught us up on the years since her graduation and shared advice for our newest alumni.
1. What brought you to Walnut Hill originally, and what was your experience like as a gymnastics student here? Do you have a favorite memory from those years?
I came to Walnut Hill in 1979 as a gymnastics major. I had outgrown the programs that were available to me on Cape Cod, where I was raised. After spending summers training with the United States Gymnastics Training Center (USGTC) at Northfield Mount Hermon, I liked the idea of a boarding school that would offer me the best training opportunities, a strong academic program, and the flexibility to travel for competitions.
I was a rhythmic gymnast—“rhythmics” being a sport that combines dance and movement with a ribbon, ball, hoop, rope, or clubs. It became an Olympic event in 1984, and I was determined to try out for the national team. I competed nationally for Bay State Dance & Gymnastics, a team coached by Jeanne Sanders and based in Framingham, and then later for the National East Coast Group Team based in NYC and led by internationally known Olympic coach and choreographer Maria Bakos. Since the foundation of rhythmics is ballet, I was able to take all of my dance classes at Walnut Hill. At that time, students at Walnut Hill could minor in areas outside of their immediate discipline, so I minored in ballet and also in theatre, studying for two years under Mark Lindberg. I credit the dance and theater training at the School for making me a better gymnast and performer.
Walnut Hill was the perfect place for me to pursue my passion and be with others who were similarly wired. There were three of us competing nationally and training for the Olympics; two were ice dancers who practiced at the Skating Club of Boston. The Walnut Hill administration was very supportive of our travel and training schedules and allowed us maximum flexibility. For example, I spent several weeks in the first semester of my senior year training in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) with former rhythmic world champions. I remember that my teachers Arnold Taylor (English) and Nancy Fraser (Chemistry) were very encouraging during my time away—similar to the way the current faculty is during audition season. In the spring of that year, in an effort to qualify for the U.S. Nationals, I had to travel all over the country to compete. This would not have been possible without extra academic support from Anne Buschenfeldt (Algebra 2) and Ted Tumelaire (US History).
2. Catch us up on the years since you graduated—what did you do after Walnut Hill, and how did that lead you to the career you have now?
I graduated from Walnut Hill in 1981, a year ahead of time, so I could spend the following year training in Yugoslavia. In those years, many of the U.S. rhythmic gymnasts traveled to Europe for training because the sport was still very new in America, and we didn’t have the local expertise. Stephanie Perrin, the Academic Dean at the time, designed a summer school plan that would enable me to return in the fall of 1980 as a senior. Though I am a member of the Class of ’81, I feel just as connected to the Class of ’82, having started my Walnut Hill experience with those classmates.
After graduation, I ended up training in the States, while teaching rhythmics and dance to supplement my meet fees and travel expenses. After placing first all-around in regional competitions and ranking at events around the country, I qualified for the 1982 USA Rhythmic Gymnastics Championships (aka “Nationals”) in Fort Worth, Texas. Unfortunately, during the first practice session, I tore the calf muscle in my left leg. Despite the injury, I competed in all the events and with my East Coast Group Team. We earned a Bronze for the Group Exercise, and I placed 21st in the Individuals competition. This was not high enough to qualify for the Olympic Team, so after a summer recuperating and a lot of thought, I decided to retire from the sport. It would have taken another four years until the next Olympic qualifier, at which point I would have been 23 years old—alas, a bit old for a gymnast.
With my Walnut Hill experience still fresh, I applied to Emerson College as a theater major. In my sophomore year at Emerson, I switched to broadcast journalism, earning a B.S. in mass communications with minors in theater and psychology. The degree led me to a career in healthcare marketing and communications via media/press relations. More than a decade later, I left my position as Vice President of Corporate Communications at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to become a mother to Victoria Ellen Cargill (aka Tori, WHS Class of ’18) and to launch an executive search practice. I continue to lead this practice today, helping a variety of nonprofit organizations with their recruitment needs.
3. In addition to being an alum, you are now a parent of a current Walnut, as well as a member of our Ambassador Circle. Tell us about your experience of playing multiple roles in our community—has your perspective changed at all due to your evolving relationship with the School?
It has given me great pleasure over these many years to serve Walnut Hill as a volunteer. In the 1990s, I was a member of the Board of Visitors, and from 2006 to 2012 I served on the Board of Overseers, co-chairing the group with fellow parent Deborah Gelch. Currently, I co-chair the Walnut Hill Ambassadors with Betsy Kessler, a WHS parent and Board of Trustees member. The Ambassadors are alums, parents, and friends who promote the School in their various communities and professional networks. A hallmark of my Walnut Hill experience occurred in 2014, when my daughter Tori was accepted into the theater program. It’s been pretty cool seeing Tori go through her own journey as a Walnut. Times are different now and things have changed, but there are many traditions that have remained, such as Boar’s Head and Mountain Day.
4. You have attended many Reunion Weekends in the past, and we’re thrilled that you’ll be joining us this spring as well! What is your favorite part of attending Reunion, and what are you most looking forward to this year?
I love reunion time! It’s wonderful to reconnect with old friends, classmates, and faculty, and to swap stories with other alumni/ae. Last year, I attended the 50th Reunion as the guest of my dear friend and colleague Patti Jacobs. In our first few weeks on the job at Beth Israel Hospital in 1994, we discovered we were both Walnuts. Walnuts are everywhere! I’m looking forward to attending this year’s Reunion Weekend, to seeing Tori and her classmates perform in Urinetown, and to celebrating our retiring “legends”—Steve Durning, Anne Buschenfeldt (my former teacher and advisor!), and Ron and Heather Reid—who have collectively served Walnut Hill for more than 100 years.
5. Do you have any lessons or advice for our recently graduated and soon-to-be-graduated Walnuts who are entering the world?
My advice to our recently graduated or soon-to-be-graduated Walnuts is to take what Walnut Hill has given you, combine it with your inherent talent and personal commitment to your art form, and go forward in your journey knowing that you have what it takes to be successful. Whether you choose a conservatory approach or a broader educational experience, you will be building on a solid foundation of knowledge, discipline, and self-awareness. As a recruiter of talent, I know that as Walnuts, you already have what most employers value in a hire: persistence, determination, and self-motivation; creativity, flexibility, and the ability to problem-solve; strong interpersonal and communications skills; eagerness to learn and a positive attitude; and the ability to work collaboratively with others as part of a team. Non Nobis Solum: “Not for ourselves alone.”