Kyle Nickel swims in the 50-yard breaststroke Saturday at Godwin Hall. He didn’t win, but he picked up two other victories. (Photo by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
HARRISONBURG – Competing against swimmers up to three years older, Kyle Nickel went into his trio of individual events not expecting to win. As it turns it, the 15-year-old Nickel was the one to beat Saturday at the Valley Swim League championships.
Nickel won the boys’ 15-to-18 50-yard backstroke and 100-yard individual medley, a rare feat for a swimmer that young.
“Part of me did [expect to have success], but the other part of me was like, ‘Be realistic, you’re not going to win,’” Nickel, a member of the Massanutten Marlins swim team, said. “I really am so grateful that I won. I didn’t expect it at all; all my races were super close.”
Despite Nickel’s efforts, the Marlins finished a distant fourth (379) in the team standings. The East Rockingham Barracudas (622.5) won their fifth straight VSL championship, with Ashby (560.5) second and Spotswood (517.5) third.
East Rockingham’s Julia Sheffer set a VSL meet record in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 25.65 seconds and also won the 50-yard butterfly.
Three other 15-18 meet records were broken Saturday at James Madison University‘s Savage Natatorium. On the girls’ side, Massanutten’s Jessie Arnold swam a 28.36 in the 50-yard backstroke. Arnold also won the 100-yard individual medley.
Two Ashby boys broke meet records: 17-year-olds Tanner Clark (50-yard freestyle, 22.22) and Aaron Glick (50-yard breaststroke, 28.60).
Clark, who also won the 50-yard butterfly, is an accomplished runner, too. He finished fourth in the 400 meters as a Turner Ashby High School junior at the Group AA state meet in June. In fact, he said he did not start swimming competitively until he was 9, relatively late for the sport.
“I’ve always been a track person,” Clark said. “I did track thinking track was my thing, then I did swimming and it just turned to be my thing, too. Both of them are my sports.”
Clark broke Jack Haines’ 2009 meet record of 22.43 in the 50-yard freestyle, the first record he has broken.
Clark, who is good friends with Nickel through the year-round Valley Area Swim Team (VAST), credits much of his success to VAST coach Steve Phillips. While the younger groups in VAST focus on technique, older swimmers train for speed, Nickel said.
Nickel recently moved into the senior age group, and has seen an improvement in his times, he said. The 6-foot-2, 155-pound Nickel swam alongside his brother, Ryan, in the 100-yard individual medley.
“I’ve always been pushed by my brother Ryan,” Kyle Nickel said. “Ever since I’d say about seventh grade, I started training, and me and Ryan’s times have been close. Just this year, I surpassed him noticeably in everything except for the freestyle events.”
Nickel will move up this coming season to the National Preparation Group of VAST, a program that trains swimmers for national meets. Those early 6 a.m. practices with VAST have paid off, but the ultimate goal is a top-three finish at the state Group AA/A meet by the time he’s a senior at East Rockingham High School, the rising sophomore said.
When he won the backstroke Saturday — an event he took up just this year — Nickel’s eyes darted to the scoreboard, and after seeing his name with a “1” next to it, he cracked a wide smile and pumped his fist.
“Probably the hardest part is not to look too excited, jumping up and down,” he said. “This year was the biggest surprise.”