United States Coast Guard Lieutenant Junior Grade Nikole Barnes will be the first active duty female officer in history competing in the 2022 Olympics in Tokyo. Her journey to making it is nothing short of extraordinary.
Growing up in the Virgin Islands led to a love affair with the ocean for Barnes. “I was in the water all the time,” she explained. Sailing was one of her passions and she was a frequent sailing competitor beginning at just 7 years old.
Her older brother always had his eye on going into the Coast Guard but the military wasn’t for her, initially. “I was invited to attend the Academy Introductory Mission [at the Coast Guard Academy]. I told my parents I was just going to do it for them. I flew in the day after traveling from Croatia, I was at a youth world championship. I was tired and jetlagged. Then they started yelling.” After being screamed at, she headed into seminar after seminar about the mission of the Coast Guard and what life would be like. “I loved it,” Barnes said with a laugh.
“I saw how the Coast Guard worked in the Virgin Islands and I learned a lot from my brother. I just wanted to make it safer on the water,” she shared. Barnes applied to the Coast Guard academy and attended a military prep school for a year in Alabama in 2012 before heading to the academy in 2013.
During her time at the academy, she had her eye on the Olympics. “I was called into the Commandant of the Cadets conference room my senior year and I had two days to decide where I was going to go after graduation,” Barnes said. She was told that they wanted to see how good she performed as an officer and from there they’d consider letting her train for sailing in the Olympics.
In 2017 she graduated from the Coast Guard Academy and headed to Florida. “I got stationed at Sector Miami at the Incident Management Division,” Barnes said. She spent a year getting qualified and on her off time, sailing every chance she got. In 2018, she received word that the Coast Guard was going to approve her to train full time for the Olympics.
The pandemic would cause the Olympics to be pushed out another year and she was granted permission to continue training. “During COVID, I was able to be in there seven days a week to knock out qualifications and help with the COVID response. My command is very supportive,” Barnes Shared.
In 2021, Barnes and her teammate qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. “I think that week was the best and worst week of my life. I was just not sleeping, throwing up and always nervous. But the moment we got on the water it was just amazing,” she said. “When we turned the corner for the finish I remember being relieved and overwhelmed, I just knew we qualified. I just knew deep down that we did it.”
In the midst of making it through the trials and qualifying, Barnes was navigating through transfer season. She’ll be headed to the USCG District 7 Command Center in Florida this summer. She said that knowing if she didn’t make it to the Olympics she was still going to get to do her job as a coastie made it all worth it. “It wasn’t a matter of needing to win, it was a matter of wanting to win and to just be in it,” she said.
Barnes will represent Team USA well as the first Coast Guardsman to make the team in any Olympic sport. It’s fitting that the military service which began with sailing vessels back in 1790 is sending one of their own to compete on the world stage for it.
Putting her career as a Coast Guard officer on the back burner isn’t easy for her, even as she heads to the Olympics. “It’s always been a balance. I still struggle when I see my shipmates advancing in the Coast Guard or making big drug busts,” Barnes explained. “But I love this extraordinary opportunity and I am so grateful for the chance to represent my country.”