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Yearbook Hall of Fame: Christian Niemela
From entrepreneur to future Vandal wide receiver, Niemela leaves a legendary legacy at Sandpoint
Published: 6/5/2020 4:14:04 PM

Photos by Jason Duchow

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One shot. Fifteen feet.

Christian Niemela has banked countless free throws over his long basketball career at Sandpoint High School, but one basket will remain in the Bulldog senior’s mind forever.

As a meager eighth-grader participating in Michael Jordan’s Flight School, Niemela found himself at the foot of greatness when Jordan singled out the North Idaho native to shoot a single free-throw in front of a crowd of hundreds.

“Are you going to be able to handle the pressure?” Jordan asked after he selected Niemela.

Niemela didn’t back down from the challenge, knocking down the shot, earning a pair of brand-new Jordan shoes and cementing a memory that would last a lifetime. 

“Meeting and being around Michael Jordan was probably one of the coolest and most memorable moments of my life,” Niemela said. 

In just a few short years, Niemela went from a free-throw shooting hotshot with MJ to one of Sandpoint’s most dominant three-sport athletes. 

“I first began playing football, baseball and basketball in our backyard with my dad, mom and brother as soon as I could walk,” he said. “I grew up in a very athletic and active family with both of my parents playing several sports when they were younger.”

And while basketball remained his passion, his contributions on the football field did not go unnoticed. Starting next year, Niemela will remain in the Gem State’s panhandle, trading in his red and white jersey for the Idaho Vandals’ Silver and Gold, capping off an impressive four-year run as a three-sport athlete, all while maintaining a 3.6 GPA. 
“I hadn’t planned on staying in state,” Niemela said. “But after spending time with the coaches, learning about the direction the football program was heading and the great reputation of the business school, I reconsidered. I liked the feel of the campus and college atmosphere.”

Ryan Knowles, Sandpoint’s head football coach, said he knew Niemela was destined for greatness not long after meeting Niemela.

“He’s someone you expect to make plays, to score touchdowns. He’s a leader,” Knowles said. “He really came alive this last year. He was the hardest guy to play against.”

Knowles' intuition could not have been further from the truth, as Niemela went on to be named team captain, varsity MVP and first-team all-league wide receiver, defensive back and returner, along with a North Idaho Athletic Hall of Fame Football Player of the Year finalist selection.

Wade Engleson, Niemela’s varsity basketball coach the last two seasons, said one of the reasons for Niemela’s success is how he treats his teammates both on and off the court. 

“I would describe Christian as an outstanding young man,” Engleson said. “He was popular, a standout athlete, yet he was nice to everyone, no matter what their status was at school. Younger kids in the program looked up to him for that.”

And while Niemela made a name for himself on offense in football, his fierce, MJ-esque competitiveness earned him a similar reputation on defense, earning the two-time varsity captain a Defensive Player of the Year honor. 

“Any coach from any sport would want him in their program. He brought not only the tangibles — the good athleticism, the competitiveness — but he also brought the intangibles of being a person of high character,” Engleson said. “He’s one of those guys that makes you better, not just with wins or losses, but inside the program.”

When not on campus, Niemela’s active streak continues, as the now graduated Bulldog plans to catch a few waves wakeboarding this summer. And in the winter, snowsport enthusiasts can likely find Niemela flying down the slopes of Schweitzer.

“I love the adrenaline rush of action sports and love doing tricks on the snow or the water,” he said. “I do it every chance I get in between all of my other sports and homework.”

In the wake of Idaho’s COVID-19 outbreak, Niemela found himself with even more downtime, as his senior track season ended not long before it began. With few chances to get outside and compete, he decided to jumpstart his undergrad journey and start his own business — Chienachy — before hitting the UI business school books this fall.

“A couple of friends and I were just talking about it one day about how fun it would be to start our own company,” he said. “Several months passed and I had always wanted to start my own business, so during spring semester and the COVID-19 pandemic, I began creating the company logo and clothing designs, developed the website, social media pages, photographed our products and then launched the company. In the short time since we launched it has become very successful with sales all over the country.” 


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