Was All-America swimmer Ryan Nicholson of Ithaca High too good for his own good last season?
Of course not, but he certainly has set the bar awfully high for himself. The Duke-bound Nicholson earned All-America honors in five events as a junior last year, including a state record in the 100-yard butterfly.
A five-time All-American as a junior? It was more than he could have imagined last year, by his own admission, so could earning that status “just” four times this year — a fantastic season by almost anyone’s standards — be a disappointment?
In a word, for the ultra-competitive, ultra-talented Nicholson: Yes.
“It’s really helping me to work hard this season,” he said, “because I want to get at least five and hopefully more. It’s a lot of pressure, and it’s a big motivator for me.”
And do not bet against him, according to his coach, Mike Blakely-Armitage.
“He’s got a competitive drive that I have not seen from any other high school athlete,” he said. “I coached one other swimmer very much like him, when I was coaching collegiately, but I have not seen people at the high school level with that similar drive.”
That drive, combined with a senior’s maturity and a boatload of natural ability, has made Nicholson perhaps the most feared high school swimmer in New York. It has also earned him this year’s Van Sickle Award as The Journal’s Male Athlete of the Year.
Nicholson is the 13th Ithaca High athlete to receive the award since its inception in 1961. A total of 64 athletes have won or shared the award in the 53 years it has been presented, with Nicholson being the first swimmer to win it.
Other strong candidates for this year’s award included athletes who have won or share it the last two years — former Cornell All-Americans Rob Pannell (lacrosse) and Kyle Dake (wrestling), both arguably the best in the nation in their respective sports this past season. Pannell won the Tewaaraton Award as the top Division I player in the nation, while Dake concluded a fabulous career by winning the NCAA title for a fourth straight year, in a fourth weight class, the first to do that.
Pannell was The Journal’s 2011 Van Sickle Award winner, while Dake shared it last year with Lansing three-sport star Ellington Hopkins.
Nicholson was rewarded for a record-filled 2012-13 season in June by being named All-America in five disciplines:
* 100-yard butterfly (48.30 seconds);
* 200 individual medley (1 minute, 51.80 seconds);
* 50 freestyle (20.49);
* 100 freestyle (45.56);
* 200 freestyle relay (1:25.79), which he accomplished with then-senior Nathan Bach, freshman Francis Schickel and senior Will Fisher.
All-America recognition is based on times, with two standards (Automatic, Consideration) established before the season starts. A swimmer who goes faster than the Automatic standard is an All-American, while one who goes below the “Consideration” standard is eligible if he or she is among the 100 fastest in the nation.
Nicholson’s butterfly time was the 17th-fastest in the nation last year; Joseph Schooling of Jacksonville, Fla., set the national record of 46.50 last November.
So far this season, Nicholson has not been swimming times that would merit any sort of All-America discussion, but he’s pretty sure that will change come mid-February or so.
“I haven’t been swimming as fast as I would hope this year,” he said. “But we’re in heavy training, so all I can do is trust that when I hit taper (reduce the workout load), I’ll swim fast. It’s not like it’s been going poorly, I just haven’t been swimming as well as I would hope.”
He said he is not that surprised with his results, given the strenuous workouts that include three days of weightlifting, up a day from last year’s regimen.
Nicholson, whose mother Claire swam at Dartmouth, began competing when he was 10 years old, two years after his family moved to the area from suburban Philadelphia. He was swimming for a local club, but quit for about eight months when he was 12, for the same reason many athletic prodigies do.
“I got really burnt out and I started to really hate it,” he said. “I think it was just the time in my life, I just thought that there was a lot of pressure on me, even then. The program I did … it just wasn’t working for me. It was a little too intense for that age.”
His attitude changed in eighth grade, when he joined the varsity swim team, under the tutelage of then-first-year coach Blakely-Armitage.
“Not to toot my own horn,” the coach said, “but my philosophy could have saved him, in terms of his swimming career. I try to be very positive, very open. We work really hard here, but it’s not domineering. It’s their choice; they can get out any time they want, but we have a work ethic here, and they all have goals they want to achieve.”
The approach worked for Nicholson.
“I started loving swimming again,” he said, “and I’ve been progressively a little more focused each year, I’d say.”
Blakely-Armitage would say the same about his fun-loving star.
“I would say he has definitely matured as a person and in his swimming, and socially,” he said. “He was kind of a jokester when he first came onto the team. He wanted it to be fun, and I think, being an eighth-grader, we’re not expecting him to be very mature. But he wasn’t as mature as other kids his age, and it took him a little bit of growing to realize what gifts he had, and then how to implement those gifts properly.”
Among his many athletic gifts is what Maine-Endwell coach Bill Underwood calls the “fifth stroke” — his work below the surface of the water.
“He’s not a large kid,” Underwood said. “He’s well-conditioned for sure, but to watch him, and especially his butterfly, he might be the smallest kid in the pool, and he’s taking the least amount of strokes. He has that ability to use water in a way that most kids will never have. He’s so efficient at how he gets through the water.”
Blakely-Armitage said his dives at the start take him farther out into the water than his competitors and that he has a superior “dolphin” kick, a key element of the butterfly.
Underwood said he has been well aware of Nicholson since he was in eighth grade, always looking to see where he was in the lineup. Now, the M-E coach said, it does not matter — you look elsewhere for first-place points.
“Any coach that swims them, you always wonder where he’s going to go,” he said. “Now, he’s so far and away better than everybody in this area that you don’t wonder anymore, because you don’t care. He is that dominant.”
Nicholson could be described as a “typical teen” — he likes to hang out with friends and play video games, and his summer job, fittingly, is as a lifeguard. But he’s atypical once he hits the water, and is far from satisfied with his status as a five-time All-American.
He’s aiming to lower his state record to 47.5 in the 100 fly, and to add federation records in the 50 and 100 freestyles to his resume. The current 50 mark is 20.33, meaning he needs to shave 0.16 seconds off his best; the 100 record is 44.66, nearly a full second faster than Nicholson’s fastest time.
Blakely-Armitage is not putting anything past his star pupil.
“He’s very personable (away from competition), but when he’s on the deck at a meet, he’s cold as ice,” the coach said. “It’s all about what’s between those lane markers, and if he’s got relay teammates behind him, that’s what matters. Everything else on either side of him doesn’t matter, unless he’s got a fixation on a kid to beat him. And people know it.”