Nic Kjaerholt will forever be thankful for his time at Florida State. The experience he gained as an assistant coach is invaluable, and even better was the way he was treated.
But there was always something missing — his wife and son were not there to share it with him.
His wife is Anna Kowalska, the women's basketball head coach at WVU Tech. The two met in 2014, at Rio Grande, of all places, and were married in 2018. Later that year, however, Kjaerholt, who is a native of Denmark, learned his visa was expiring. So he decided not only to go back to school on a student visa, but also to seek a graduate assistant coaching position, preferably at the highest level.
He landed just that at Florida State, where he was hired by legendary coach Sue Semrau. It was the ideal landing for Kjaerholt, but Kowalska stayed behind with their son Noah and began her career as the Golden Bears head coach.
The three of them stayed in touch through any means and as often as possible, but there's no denying the time apart was difficult, especially for Noah.
But life has a funny way of working out. Last spring, Kjaerholt got to come home earlier than expected when the coronavirus pandemic shut Florida State down in March. And that was the last time he would have to leave his family.
Kjaerholt was hired as an assistant to Kowalska in September, reuniting a family while completing a coaching staff all at once.
"I think it goes without saying that it was really exciting to be able to come back, and to be able to work with my wife," Kjaerholt said. "I don't think we ever really thought we would get the opportunity, but when the opportunity presented itself, we were like, 'Man, we've got to do this.' It's been really good, despite the challenges (of Covid-19)."
It's the best of both worlds for Kowalska. She was getting her husband back and Noah was getting his dad back, but Kjaerholt also brought so much to the team. Prior to his time at Florida State, Kjaerholt had been an assistant to longtime Tech men's head coach Bob Williams.
"I was also very excited to have him back home, but to get to work with him was even more exciting," she said. "You cannot buy experience. It's within you. So I was very happy to have an assistant who had so much experience under his belt."
They are definitely taking nothing for granted. If not for the modern conveniences of texting and Facetime, Kowalska and Kjaerholt would have connected even less than they already were. Fortunately, with the Seminoles competing in the ACC, Kowalska and Noah were able to see Kjaerholt at places like Virginia Tech and Duke.
"We really tried to prioritize (Noah) getting to see us talk together. And when her schedule allowed for it, and it coincided if we had a game close, they would come to watch us play," Kjaerholt said. "We tried to make it work. The first year we got to see each other more than we thought we would, then the second year it wasn't the same. But we tried to make the best of it. I think the longest we went without seeing each other was two or three months, but it felt like years. It was hard, but we thank God for Facetime and having this technology and being able to stay connected that way."
The biggest concern was the effect the separation had on Noah, who is now 4. Kowalska said others told her, perhaps in an attempt at comfort and reassurance, that he might not remember much because he was so young, but she had her doubts.
"I think he took it pretty hard those two years," she said. "He's very emotional as a little boy. Now he's like, 'Mommy and Daddy, where are you guys? Where is Daddy? Where did Daddy go?' ... It definitely affected him. People would tell me different, but I was like, 'No, not this boy. This boy was affected a lot.'"
"He's adjusted to it now," Kjaerholt said. "Now he knows Mommy and Daddy are working together. Daddy's home. Now I can tell him I'm just going to go to the office or I'm going to the store and I'll be back. I don't think he asks her anymore, because he knows I'm coming back now. But in the beginning it was like he didn't know. So it did affect him."
The two were introduced by former Tech women's head coach Jenna Everhart while the team was set to play rival Rio Grande. Kjaerholt was a grad assistant there while working on his Master's degree, and Kowalska was an assistant to Everhart. The latter knew Kjaerholt from his time as a player for the Golden Bears when they were still in Montgomery.
"She said, 'I want you to meet someone. You both are from Europe. You should meet him,'" said Kowalska, who moved to the United States from Poland when she was 13. "We exchanged numbers and started to talk more and more, and he got a job here at Tech when I was still an assistant. We talked and we got to know each other better."
The two celebrated their third wedding anniversary this month.
The story of how Kjaerholt ended up at Florida State is a funny one.
Bob Lindsay, Kowalska's head coach at Kent State when she was one of the most dominant post players in the Mid-American Conference, helped her and Kjaerholt in their search for a grad assistant job. One message had her convinced he had found the perfect job.
"He was sending me job openings. And I'm looking and I'm like, 'Oh, FSU.' The first thing that came to mind was Florida State," she said.
"I asked her, 'Is he talking about THE Florida State, in the ACC?' And she said, 'I think so,'" Kjaerholt said. "Out of the corner of my eye I did kind of see the message. So, resumé, short email, send to coach Sue, coach Brooke. Then after I sent it, I was like, 'Here, let me see that message.' The logo on there was like a bear print or something. I was like, 'This isn't the Seminoles.'
"So we come to find out it was Frostburg State University (in Maryland). I was like, 'They are not going to respond.'"
He was wrong. In fact, he received an email from assistant coach Brooke Wyckoff the next day and was soon on his way to Tallahassee.
"Call it a lucky mistake if you want. It was just crazy timing," he said. "They were looking for somebody like me and I needed them."
"They were all just wonderful down there," he continued. "Coach Sue is a future Hall of Fame coach and Brooke Wyckoff played there, played in the WNBA. So much experience and great people. Above everything they do, they do everything high class and care about you as a person first."
And now he's using what he learned there at Tech. He said it "would be silly" not to.
Kowalska and Kjaerholt will coach in the postseason together for the first time Monday when the Golden Bears travel to Carlow for the first round of the River States Conference Tournament. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m.
Win or lose, they will be doing what they love with who they love.
"I think basketball brought us together, which is crazy," Kowalska said. "I'm glad that we both like the same thing. Because we are together more. We might have arguments about basketball sometimes because he has different views than I do. But in the end it does bring us together because we love something together."
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