May River state champion swimmer: If mentally weak, 'not going to happen for you'
Twelve days ago, Erek Nelson was fairly certain he would break the state record in the boys’ 100-yard backstroke.
“My attitude was just so ready to do it. My body was ready to do it,” said the May River senior, who owns the state’s best time in his specialty this season.
Then Hurricane Matthew hit, scattering Nelson, his teammates and the rest of the Lowcountry to safer ground — pool or no pool.
The good news is Nelson and his family came through virtually unscathed. Still to come, though, was news that stung the swimmer’s competitive side: Saturday’s state meets would go on as planned, with a large chunk of entrants still trying to get back in the water.
And those aspirations of a state record? “I’m probably about 85 percent,” said Nelson, who was more pessimistic in an email he wrote Tuesday to the South Carolina High School League.
It could be worse. Hilton Head Island may not send full teams to Columbia because some swimmers haven’t yet been able to get home. Hilton Head Christian likely faces the same dilemma, with the SCISA meet also set for Saturday in Augusta.
“This meet takes a big second place to what we’re dealing with,” said Seahawks coach Mike Lane.
Nonetheless, it seems a double whammy to competitors hardest hit by Matthew’s wrath. The Hilton Head girls were positioned for a run to reclaim the state title they held for five years until relinquishing it last October. May River has a chance for its first state title of any kind.
And they might yet stand atop the podium, just with a bigger obstacle to climb.
“I just told our kids this is sometimes how life goes,” Lane said. “It’s not always going to be fair. Ultimately, this is how we’re going to have to compete.”
The Seahawks reconvened Wednesday for their first training session at the Island Rec Center, ending what had been an eight-day break for many. May River and Bluffton swimmers got in the water Thursday morning.
Eric Kemeny, coach for both May River and Bluffton, suggested his biggest task will be working on his kids’ mental side. “Remind them they are ready to swim well,” he said. “They’re ready to go to the meet and swim fast, and they need to approach it that way.”
Nelson is working on it. The senior’s qualifying time of 51.60 seconds in the 100 backstroke is nearly two seconds better than anyone else in the state, and came in an early-season competition he hadn’t really targeted.
“That was unrested, unshaved and untapered,” he said. “When I went that time, I was stoked. The number just popped into my head — 49.”
Anything that starts with that number would smash the state record. Pendleton’s Rick Hancock covered the distance in 50.70 seconds back in 2002.
“That’s been in the back of my head every single day for the past two weeks,” said Nelson, who also is seeded second in the 200 individual medley.
Matthew’s approach, however, caused a big shakeup. The state meet, originally set for Oct. 8 at the University of South Carolina natatorium, was pushed back a week while the hurricane was only a looming threat.
But despite the mass evacuations, struggles to re-enter the Lowcountry and lives disrupted, neither the High School League or SCISA budged off this weekend. Their reasoning: With temperatures dropping in the Upstate, it would create a health risk for swimmers training up there.
“Swimming is something we feel like you can’t move,” said SCISA athletics director Mike Fanning. “The (availability) of indoor pool facilities is so limited, we feel like it’d be a disadvantage. It’s been a cold week, too. If it was me, it’d be hard to train this week.”
Nelson isn’t sold, noting that many swimmers also are members of club teams who train year-round in indoor or heated facilities.
“The teams up in Greenville, they all have indoor pools,” he argued. “Rock Hill has an indoor pool. Columbia has three indoor pools. The only teams I know that have outdoor pools are teams in the eastern part of the state. And here, when it gets cold, they put a bubble up and it’s fine.”
Lane agreed, but only to a point.
“There’s also some smaller schools that don’t,” he said. “If I had to guess, it’s probably 50/50 on the Upstate kids and heated pools. Some might practice out of a community pool that’s only open in summer. I know that’s the case for sure in some places up north.”
Kemeny said: “I’m just not sure how many kids were affected by the hurricane, compared to how many kids would be affected by swimming outside. I’m not sure how well the state took that into account.”
Whatever the case, the meets are on for Saturday.
“It’s a way for us to have a rallying cry,” Lane said. “Who’s going to go in there and be the toughest that day? It’s one shot. You swim it once and go. Our kids might be a little more rested than the kids up north, so we’ll see.”
Nelson, for his part, is putting extra effort into visualizing his swims, working to block out the negative vibes and regain the confident mindset of before.
“You have to say to yourself, ‘I’m going to do this,’ ” Nelson said. “You really have to have a chip on your shoulder. You have to swim mad and not let anything get in your way.”
He chuckled when it was suggested the “swimming mad” part shouldn’t be a problem.
“Uh, no,” Nelson said. “Not at all. Not at all.”