Christian Zylstra- Staff Writer
It’s rare to find an athlete who steps away from a sport for three years only to return on a whim and compete. It’s rare to find an athlete who sacrifices the sport he loves to focus on academics.
Nathan Van Peursem is rare.
Today, Van Peursem is a senior nursing student at Dordt College in the morning and a central defender for the men’s soccer team in the afternoon. However, it wasn’t always that way.
In high school, Van Peursem played a commanding defensive role for the Sioux Falls Christian boys soccer team. Starting in most matches for several years, Van Peursem grew accustomed to playing and winning, with four straight trips to the state semifinals – including winning back-to-back championships his junior and senior seasons.
Three years ago, walking across the shaky stage at the Sioux Falls Christian graduation ceremony, Van Peursem figured his soccer days had ended. Torn between preparing for a nursing career and playing soccer for four more years, Van Peursem had a decision to make.
“I knew the commitment that nursing school required, so I was solely focused on becoming a nurse,” Van Peursem said.
Ask anyone enrolled in nursing school what it’s like, and their description will be less than flattering. Hour-long drives to and from Sioux City for early morning clinicals and mountains of homework and tests are a few of the many “perks” for those attending nursing school.
Being forced to decide between two passions is a difficult position to be in – but for Van Peursem, it wasn’t hard.
“I figured my studies will last me a lifetime, whereas my skills with soccer would only be good for another four years,” Van Peursem said.
This choice didn’t mean that Van Peursem quit soccer cold-turkey. Intramural soccer – indoor and outdoor – helped him practice and stay connected with the sport. Still, Van Peursem missed playing soccer at a competitive level. It wasn’t easy for him, sitting on the sidelines and watching his friends play soccer for Dordt.
“Every game I went to, I just wished I was out there playing,” Van Peursem said.
That chance soon came.
Van Peursem graduated from St. Luke’s Nursing School in December of 2015. No more early morning clinicals, hour-long drives to class or studying for exams past dusk. Van Peursem’s schedule opened up. At the same time, vacancies popped up on the Dordt defensive line.
“I never even considered the chance to play soccer at Dordt College,” Van Peursem said. “I figured I couldn’t compete anymore because I took three years off.”
One spring afternoon in March, Van Peursem chatted about Dordt soccer with a few current players, including former high school teammate Cody Van Holland. Van Holland and Alex Durbin, both senior captains, knew the tough road ahead with three of the starting four defenders graduating that spring.
An idea popped into Van Holland’s mind: get Van Peursem on the team.
“I knew he had the skills back in high school, and he just got more and more athletic,” Van Holland said. “Dordt needed a defender like him—one who doesn’t back down and who sets the tone.”
Van Peursem thought that his former teammate was joking. He soon forgot about the idea, but Van Holland wouldn’t let it go. After discussions with Dordt men’s soccer coach Craig Stiemsma, the idea turned into an opportunity.
“I told him if he put in the work, he would play,” Van Holland said. “And that’s what I told Stiemsma, too.”
Van Peursem, worried about not being able to keep up after three years away from playing competitively, decided to practice with the team during spring camp.
“Nathan worked out with the team all spring, and even though he was not able to play in the spring games because of eligibility, we could see his potential,” Stiemsma said.
After spring practice, Van Peursem spoke with Van Holland and Stiemsma, telling them both he was going to play.
That decision is now paying off for both sides.
“Nathan is one of the very best defenders in our conference,” Stiemsma said.
Van Peursem has started in 12 of Dordt’s 15 matches so far, missing three games due to a leg injury. On the field, Van Peursem has commanded the defense, taking control with his physical, aggressive play. He’s also scored a goal off a header directed from a corner kick.
“Taking that role as a center defensive back is definitely challenging, and he’s done more than enough to impress me,” Durbin said. “He’s been a huge impact in just about every single game he’s played.”
And when soccer ends, Van Peursem still has a career path to fall back on.
From scrubs to shin guards and preventing illnesses to preventing goals, Nathan Van Peursem is rare.