Ryan Nicholson is “kind of a goofy guy,” by his own admission, but insists he has worked at becoming more of a leader on the Ithaca High swim team.
“I’ve never really taken a lot of stuff seriously, so it’s kind of a new thing for me,” Nicholson said with a smile before Tuesday’s practice. “I’ve always tried really hard in practice, but I’ve never really pushed anyone else to try hard or tried to be a leader, other than by example. I’ve tried to consciously work on that this year.”
His work has paid off, says his coach, Mike Blakely-Armitage.
“I would say he has definitely matured as a person and in his swimming, and socially,” Blakely-Armitage said earlier this season.
While being a team leader might have taken some extra effort, leading in the pool has come naturally for the Duke-bound senior.
Nicholson plans on doing more of that this weekend as he wraps up his five-year varsity career at the New York State Federation Swimming and Diving Championships, starting Friday at the Webster Aquatic Center near Rochester. Nicholson is hoping to defend his title, and break his own state record, in his specialty event, the 100-yard butterfly.
Nicholson is also entered in the 50 freestyle and will swim on Ithaca’s 200 and 400 freestyle relays. Nicholson will be joined by eight teammates at states: Sophomore Kevin Miller is entered in the 200 and 500 freestyles; sophomore Francis Schickel is entered in the 50 and 100 free; senior Faadhil Moheed is entered in the 100 backstroke; and senior Noah FrostClapp is entered in the 100 breaststroke.
All of those swimmers will compete in at least one of the three relays Ithaca has entered with junior David Korb, sophomore Andrew Mikhailichenko, senior Charles Chang and senior Kyle Markwardt.
But garnering most of the attention will be Nicholson, who earned All-America status in five events last year and posted the 17th-fastest time in the nation in the 100 fly at 48.33. Nicholson not only wants to win every event in which he’s entered, he’s aiming at splashing his name all over the state record books.
Nicholson has his sights set on lowering the record in the 50 free — currently 20.33, set three years ago by Stanley Wong of Tappan Zee. Nicholson is the No. 1 seed in the event at 20.57; last year at states, Nicholson swam a Section 4-record 20.49 while leading off the 200 free relay, more than six-tenths of a second faster than the state champion’s time in the 50.
Nicholson is also planning on leading off the 400 free relay this time around, and is shooting for the state 100 free record of 44.66, set in 2009 by Jack Wagner of Holy Trinity.
“It’s kind of an expectation that I’m going to break my (100 fly) record, since I believe I’ve gotten faster,” he said. “The 50 free, I was less than two tenths off last year, so that’s been a goal all year for me.”
His confidence when it comes to the 100 fly record is not as evident when it comes to the shorter race.
“It’s pretty much just a crap shoot, just two lengths,” he said, “and it’s going to be fast race all around.”
Nicholson’s main competition should come from senior Gunnar Zemering of Bethlehem High in the Capital District. He is seeded second at 20.80.
“It’s definitely one of his goals, to break that record,” Blakely-Armitage said of Nicholson. “But in the 50 freestyle, anything can happen, you have to have a good start, a good turn, it’s a very short race so it’s a lot about finesse and skill and athleticism. It’s less about your overall fitness, it’s a technique-oriented swim.”
Nicholson said he has been working tirelessly at the technical aspects of the 50 — the start, the break-out, the turn at 25 meters and maintaining a strong kick throughout. He said he takes one breath during the race, midway through the second length back.
“I find it rejuvenates me for that last 12½ yards,” he said. “It’s all about preference, pretty much. I’d say most swimmers probably take 2 breaths, but when you get to higher levels, they either take one or else they just don’t breathe. It’s only a 20-second race.”
Actually, Nicholson is hoping it is a little less than a 20-second race.
“My goal for this year has been a 19.99,” he said. “I’ve been trying to break 20 and that’s still my goal. If I don’t get it, then I’ll settle for the state record.”
Blakely-Armitage said Nicholson is capable of record-breaking victories in both of his individual events, but that there are no guarantees.
“Anything can happen at the state meet,” the coach said. “It’s not just him in a vacuum. There are other people in contention, and it’s going to be a very, very fast meet. I think he’s going to have to earn both victories, it’s not going to be him blowing everybody out.”
Nicholson led Ithaca to a second-place finish last year in the 200 free relay and a fifth in the 400 relay, both in All-America times. FrostClapp said seeing Nicholson’s name on the relay almost guarantees results.
“When he’s on a relay with us, just having him on it will drop our time significantly because he’s so fast,” FrostClapp said. “But being on that relay with him makes you faster, too. There’s no other way to put it.”
In addition to Ithaca’s large contingent, other locals headed to states include: Lansing sophomore Joe Koch in the 200 and 500 freestyles; Joe’s brother John, a freshman, in the 200 individual medley; and senior Chris Husted of Odessa-Montour in the 100 free.
John Koch should contend for a spot in the finals of the 500 freestyle, as he’s seeded fifth with a time of 4:37.30.