Track & Field

Power Couple

Two of the nation’s best throwers, Payton Otterdahl and Maddy Nilles share a special relationship away from the throwing cages.

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Photos By Hillary Ehlen

There are few things that can bring people together quite like sports can. From fans sitting at a sports bar, watching their favorite teams to athletes across the country bonding together, sports will forever be a connective tissue within our communities, regardless of where your allegiances lie.


It’s built upon the notion of teamwork with athletes working towards the common goal of the team. Spending countless hours with one another practicing and competing for team glory. Lifelong friendships, relationships and successes are constructed on teams all over the world. Because of this, it is not improbable for athletes to find their kindred spirit in another teammate or even, another adversary. Countless examples come to mind and any number of ESPN features can verify that claim.

While those stories can become cliché and overdone from time to time, there is nothing redundant about the relationship shared by Payton Otterdahl and Maddy Nilles. The two Bison throwers are not just teammates, they are also in a relationship that goes beyond the throwing cage. It is one that has all the makings of a lifelong pairing.

And it would not have been possible without North Dakota State and its throws program. Not only have Otterdahl and Nilles found each other in the program, but they have also become two of the program’s best student-athletes in recent memory. Both have reached a level of success unseen at North Dakota State in the Division I era.

However, their relationship may not be what it is today if not for the amount of time the couple spent together in Nilles’ first year on campus. Otterdahl was a sophomore at the time, but Nilles attributes her getting to travel with the team as a true freshman as a big factor in the development of their relationship. “He was a sophomore and I was a true freshman and, I don’t know, we just kind of had an eye for each other and it just kind of evolved from there,” Nilles said. “We got to spend a lot of time together on the track team because my freshman year, I got to travel. So we got to go across the country together and it was a neat experience. It just blossomed from there.”

Their relationship was not the only thing blossoming. Both Otterdahl and Nilles immediately became forces in the Bison throws program early on. They have only progressed throughout their careers too, becoming two of the best in North Dakota State’s illustrious track & field history.

Otterdahl, a senior from Rosemount, Minnesota, holds the school’s record in the indoor and outdoor shot put, discus and the weight throw. The only school record he has yet to surpass in his events is in the hammer throw. Otterdahl made All-American status in the shot put and discus during the outdoor season last year. Therefore, the writing was on the wall, Otterdahl was poised to dominate in his senior season.

Yet, no one was anticipating a historic level of dominance. The kind of dominance unseen at the collegiate level. Over the course of the indoor season, Otterdahl continuously shattered his own school records. Along with that, he inched ever closer to the NCAA record in the shot put. He improved on his numbers week after week. Otterdahl attributes his indoor success to never being satisfied with previous marks.

“My mindset really going into it is once I accomplish something, that’s kind of the new standard. I know that I can still push myself to see where I can go next with it. I don’t know if this is a good or a bad thing, but I would say I’m pretty much never satisfied,” he said. “I’ll always have a number in my head that I want to hit going into a meet, but once I hit it, I’m already thinking about the next number and what I can do to get myself there, keep training and accomplish those next goals. In a sport that’s all about the numbers, you don’t want to get caught up with the numbers, but at the same time, there is no limit to what you’re able to do, there’s no cap number that you can hit. I’m always just striving for the next one.”

As if Otterdahl’s indoor campaign could not get any more impressive, he continued to post incredible results. At the Summit League Indoor Championships, Otterdahl broke the NCAA indoor record for shot put, throwing a 71-06.75. Hence, Payton Otterdahl threw the shot put farther than anyone in collegiate history. For some perspective, that throw would have given him a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics.

It does not stop there as Otterdahl continued to blaze the trail for future Bison throwers. At the NCAA Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Alabama, Otterdahl became the first North Dakota State student-athlete to win a national championship in the Division I era. But Otterdahl didn’t just do it once, taking the nation’s top honors in the shot put and weight throw. To this day, there is not a more impressive individual performance in the school’s rich athletic history.

“It was awesome, it was truly the perfect ending to my indoor season. I had accomplished all the goals I had set forth. I enjoyed it while I was at that weekend, I know we went out to a Brazilian steakhouse and I ate till I hurt, but after that, I was already thinking about my goals for the outdoor season,” Otterdahl said. “I’m still focused on my goals there and I kind of forget that everything happened with the indoor season. Once all is said and done and my eligibility is up at NDSU, then I’ll be able to take time and reflect on how the year went for me. I just want to be able to say that I gave it my best and held nothing back and was able to be as good as I was able to be.”

During this outdoor season, he broke his own school record in the discus three weeks running, Otterdahl ranks third in the NCAA in the discus. As for the shot put, he is ranked second in the country. Otterdahl captured Summit League titles in both events this past weekend, Otterdahl will finish his career with seven individual Summit League titles. He was also named the conference meet’s field MVP. As was the case during the indoor season, Otterdahl has a national title(s) on his mind as his collegiate track career winds down. “Being an NCAA champion in my events is definitely the goal for the season. In the meantime, I just want to be able to compete at the highest level that I’m able to,” he said. “If I do that then more records should be going my way. I’m not chasing a certain number in mind, obviously, the national record is 22 meters even, so that’s the ultimate goal. If I execute and do things the right way then I should be happy with the results.”

Nilles has also emerged as a dominant performer on the women’s side. She finished fifth in the hammer throw at last year’s outdoor nationals. In doing that, she set the school record in the event and earned First Team All-America honors. At the Summit League Outdoor Championships, she was the conference’s runner-up in the event, but she also finished in the top six in the shot put, discus and javelin. That individual performance garnered her Summit League Championships Field MVP for the conference meet.

Playing off that incredible outdoor run, the Sherrill, Iowa, native was equally impressive during this indoor season. She set a new school record in the weight throw and qualified for the indoor national championships in the event, her first time doing so. Nilles finished 12th and was named an All-American again.

Nilles doesn’t describe herself as the strongest thrower around, so she knew summer lifting and technique was crucial for her indoor success this season. “Summer lifting bumped that way up. Just trying to get really strong, strength really is not my forte, so I really tried to get some more strength and get a little bit bigger throughout the weight season. Then, the weight doesn’t manhandle me, where I can manhandle it,” she said. “Just training really hard in the fall and staying really focused at practice. Being older and more experienced, you know what to do and doing it your best at it every day and getting one percent better every day definitely led up to that good season of weight throw.”

Her success does not change the adjustments a thrower needs to make as they transition from indoor to the outdoor season. While North Dakota State travels far and wide to compete outside, they almost always practice indoors during the outdoor season. For Nilles, transitioning to the outdoor season can take some time.

“For the indoor season, it’s a lot more dialed in and technical where you can see everything. There are no other outside resources that can change your throw like the weather, you can’t control those things. So for the indoor season, it’s a little bit easier to be more technical and precise,” she said. “For outdoor season, it’s a slow transition. You want to make it fast, but you just have to be patient and have the mindset where it’s going to take a week or two to transition to outdoor and put up some results for that.”

Nilles, who completed her junior indoor season this year, is using a redshirt this outdoor season. Therefore, she will compete for all of next season rather than using her final year of outdoor eligibility this year. Preparing for a senior season where she will look to return to indoor and outdoor nationals, Nilles knows developing and cultivating technique is important. She does admit to feeling nervous at her first indoor nationals this season. If she returns next year, she knows that will not be the case.

“I definitely want to get back to both nationals next year. This year was my first year at indoor nationals, so it was kind of a different feel than last year’s outdoor nationals. So hopefully, I’ll do a little bit better next year for indoor and not be so surprised or anxious,” she said. “I’ll be more comfortable for indoor next year and for outdoor, just go the limit and do all that I can do, all the small things to finish on a strong year.”

While both Otterdahl and Nilles are exceptional throwers already, that does not mean they don’t lean on one another for the occasional bit of throwing advice. Having a relationship away from the field of competition makes those sorts of conversations more approachable. However, both are quick to admit that sometimes advice falls on deaf ears based on terminology alone.

“She definitely tries to give me tips in the hammer. She is so much more advanced than I am though. I try to give my best effort at taking her advice and trying to use it, but some of the stuff is a little bit too advanced for me,” Otterdahl said. “I do try to help her a little bit in the shot put and the discus as well. We do help each other in that respect, but she’s definitely the technical one at hammer, I’m just strong.”

Nilles sees something similar in giving one another advice. Though shot put and hammer throw are both throwing events, they have different terminology. This makes things challenging at times when they try to coach each other. “He definitely helps me out with discus quite a bit and I try to help him with hammer. His forte is shot put and mine is hammer, so just language barriers between those two events are a little bit different sometimes,” she said. “It’s hard to understand sometimes if you don’t understand the language of that event. So that can be a barrier.”

Yet, Nilles sees more benefits in having such a close relationship with Otterdahl. This comes in handy when the team is traveling or if one of them is having an off day at practice. They both have somewhat of a sixth sense and can recognize when the other needs a pick me up at practice or at a meet. “It’s nice just to be at practice and if you’re having a tough day, that person knows right away,” Nilles said. “It’s nice because we understand when we have a tough day or even traveling you kind of have a buddy or someone to lean on and communicate with, so it’s nice.”

Payton Otterdahl and Maddy Nilles have already accomplished a great amount of success at North Dakota State. They are a Bison power couple in its truest, most pure form. In the field of competition, they are bound to see even more successes too. Whether that be more NCAA Championships, All-America honors, USA Championships or Olympic competition, is yet to be seen. However, in the field of life, they have a bond that will last beyond their athletic careers.

Sports is what brought them together and it is sports that, in part, will connect them for life.

Power Couple
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