Game, Set, Match: Olivia Czerwonka ’23, ’26 DNP, Aces Leadership and Sisterhood In Valpo Tennis

Olivia Czerwonka '23, '26 DNP, and Claire Czerwonka '21, '24 DNP, smiling and posing for a photo with both of their award plaques for winning the 2021 Missouri Valley Conference doubles championship.

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to win a championship with your best friend? For Olivia Czerwonka ’23, ’26 DNP, that dream is a reality. As one of Valpo’s most successful tennis players in history, Olivia currently holds both of the program’s singles and doubles records, has previously been named Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Player of the Year, and won the conference championship title twice — one of which was won alongside her own sister.

Olivia started playing tennis when she was just four years old. Her 18-year-long journey was not only inspired by her love for the sport but also by her highly successful sister, Claire Czerwonka ’21, ’24 DNP. “Claire started playing first. Obviously, as the younger sister, you’ve got to do everything your older sister does,” Olivia says. From there, competing at a collegiate level became one of her ultimate goals. “I always wanted to play tennis in college. I had envisioned it for myself since the very beginning. That was my goal and I never questioned it. I actually was committed to a Division III school at the start. So, when I decided on Valpo, it was a big jump to a Division I school — and to be playing with Claire,” she says.

It was the start of a great family legacy that would have a resounding impact on Valpo’s tennis program and the entire campus community. 

Olivia Czerwonka '23, '26 DNP, and Claire Czerwonka '21, '24 DNP, posing with their parents on Valpo's tennis court after a match.

With Claire being only two years her senior, Olivia was able to start her tennis career at Valpo playing alongside her. “We played doubles together, which is kind of crazy. Not many people get to say that they’ve played doubles with their sister,” Olivia shares. As if their story wasn’t unique already, the Czerwonka sisters will do you one better: although Claire moved on from playing collegiate tennis after finishing her undergraduate studies in 2021, she’s helped lead the team — and Olivia — as an assistant coach for the past two years while earning her doctorate of nursing practice (DNP). Now, after Commencement, Claire will be passing this baton of leadership on to Olivia as the former pursues a career in healthcare. (So, check “doubles partner” and “coach” off the list!) Preparing to move into the two-year role, Olivia says it best: “She’s my best friend and my greatest inspiration, on and off the court. And I want to be that, if not better.”

“I never thought I could accomplish the things I’ve accomplished. If you had asked me during my freshman year of high school, I was not that tennis player; I wasn’t like my sister, who won Wisconsin’s state championship three times. If you told me then that I’d win MVC Player of the Year, break all of Valpo’s records, and win a conference championship twice, I’d have thought you were kidding. So, it’s really cool to see how I’ve grown, and how Valpo has led me to grow. I think if I was anywhere else, I couldn’t have done all I have while I was here at Valpo,” Olivia says. “I don’t think it’s hit me yet that my last season is coming to a close so soon. I’ll probably be a train wreck for the last match… But, you know, if I look back at everything I’ve accomplished, I feel in my heart that I’ve given it my all. I’m really happy with how I’m going to be walking away from Valpo and the tennis program. It’s going to be a great step into my role as coach and, even more so, as I start my life.”

Olivia Czerwonka '23, '26 DNP, leaping into the air while swinging her tennis racquet at the ball during a singles match.

It’s safe to say that Olivia has made her mark on Valpo, breaking several program records, lending her light as the tennis team captain, making a difference as a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), and forging life-long relationships that will follow her into her graduate studies. (We’ll give you a hint: Her doctorate program is the same as Claire’s!) As a talented woman in tennis, she’s also made a lasting impact on Valparaiso’s community.

“The community is always behind you as a student-athlete at Valpo,” Olivia says. “During the winter months, we train at a bubble not far from campus and there are always young girl tennis players there who say, ‘You’re Olivia from the tennis team — can we get a picture with you?’ And it’s just the craziest thing, to be a role model in the community for young girls who love tennis.” One girl, in particular, attends all of Valpo’s tennis matches and would watch Olivia and Claire play their doubles matches together. “She would pretend to play along with us and say ‘Let’s go, Valpo!’ during her own matches and practices — pretending to be us,” Olivia says with a smile. “I connected with her coach and surprised her at one of her own lessons for a photo… She really looks up to me and I think that’s just so cool. It’s crazy how much of an impact women in sports can have, and I’ll always remember her,” she says.

Looking back at a career full of triumphs before she steps into a coaching position, Olivia’s favorite memories all lead back to one thing: the team itself. According to Olivia, the close-knit team is one of best friends, where time shared together isn’t reserved for practice and matches. “Our team is special because it’s a culture that not a lot of other teams have. We have the same goal, and are all academically and athletically strong,” Olivia says. She credits their strengths not only to the hard work and dedication of each individual player but also to the leadership of Claire and Head Coach Bob Modesto. “We’re all here for the right reasons and we all support each other. We want each other to win just as much as we want to win ourselves,” she says.

Team camaraderie extends off the court and into the classroom, and it shows: Just last month, the tennis program earned the Team Academic Award by posting the department’s highest team GPA for the third year in a row. For Olivia, it’s a source of great pride in herself and in her team. Being a student-athlete is akin to a full-time job; tack on a healthcare degree, and it takes incredible dedication, discipline, and time management to excel equally in both. 

“On the athletics side, there are people who can help you find the resources you need to succeed on and off the court. The number one strength of Valpo Athletics as a whole is that they’re big on the academic side of being a student-athlete. They want us to excel in school because they don’t see it as being lesser to sports,” Olivia attests. “Nursing also isn’t the easiest major — between clinicals and all of the outside work you need to put in, especially. As a student-athlete, I miss a lot of classes and even clinicals sometimes, but the professors are so supportive and understanding. I’ll come into class and they’ll ask, ‘So, did you win your match?’ — or send me a congratulatory email. Valpo’s nursing department is amazing and I couldn’t have achieved all I have without them.”

Tennis aside, it was Valpo’s direct-admit nursing program that inspired Olivia to choose life as a Beacon. Originally inspired to go into healthcare by a mission trip she took to the Dominican Republic during her senior year of high school, she knew helping others was what she wanted to do for the rest of her life — and was eager to get started as soon as possible. “A lot of other places would require you to earn a different undergraduate major, like biology, for four years before you even start nursing. So, it can take six years just to get a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Here, I graduated with mine in just four years and am only taking another three to get my DNP,” Olivia explains.

A posed photo of Olivia Czerwonka '23, '26 DNP, smiling and wearing a brown, gold, and white Valpo women's tennis uniform against a white backdrop.

Already one year into her DNP program, Olivia has big plans for the future. Aside from assistant coaching the Valpo tennis team for her next two years as a Beacon, she plans on bringing her passion and expertise into the community with a focus on women’s health. “As a woman in healthcare leadership, I feel like I’m in a position where I can empower so many women and children. I had an internship under a nurse practitioner during my sophomore year at a women’s health clinic, and it felt so empowering to have conversations with other women and teenagers,” Olivia says. “They come in looking for care and advice, and it’s special that I can give them that.” This fall, Olivia will be completing her clinicals in women’s health right here in Northwest Indiana. In the meantime, she will be serving as a nurse at Sunrise Day Camp in Lake Zurich, Illinois, where she’ll spend her whole day bringing joy to children diagnosed with cancer. We’re so proud of all Olivia has accomplished, as well as the family legacy and excellence that she and Claire have brought to Valpo Athletics and the College of Nursing and Health Professions. We know they’re going to go far in their calling and beyond — two true Beacons lending their light to bring joy and greatness to others — and always have a place here at home with their Valpo family.

Olivia Czerwonka '23, '26 DNP, embracing her sister and doubles partner, Claire Czerwonka '21, '24 DNP, on Valpo's tennis court after a match.