CHARLOTTE, NC — Some people find relaxation in a warm, soaking bath. For 15-year-old Erik Nieman, an avid swimmer, home is a cold pool.
“You can walk around people, and not show any emotions and stuff, but in the water, you can scream, rage and all that other stuff and it doesn’t really matter because no one can hear you,” Nieman told Sporting News. “It was a way to release emotions and it’s just fun because it’s relaxing.”
And there are plenty of emotions for Erik to release. He’s been fighting cystic fibrosis for years. It’s a condition he was born with, as was his younger brother, 12-year-old Ryan.
Erik’s battle with cystic fibrosis meant he was eligible for a special request from Make-A-Wish, so when the time came for his choice, it “took him all of about three seconds” to announce what he wanted to do, according to his mother, Holly.
He wanted to train with 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte and his coach, David Marsh.
The Nieman family realized that wish on Oct. 14 when they traveled to Charlotte for a once-in-a-lifetime experience with Lochte, Marsh and members of the renowned SwimMAC team.
“I didn’t realize the wish I asked for was actually happening until as soon as I got here, and then I realized this is actually real and I’m not dreaming,” Erik said.
The enormity of a Erik’s desire to train in Charlotte with an elite swimming program, over all the other things Make-A-Wish can provide, wasn’t lost on Lochte.
“He could’ve gone to Fiji, could’ve gone anywhere, but he chose to come here to Charlotte to meet me, and I just want him to have a good time,” Lochte told Sporting News, before the coaching session began. “He’s full of energy and we’re going to have fun and we’re going to do what he always wanted to do: swim.”
Why train with Lochte, given all the choices afforded by Make-A-Wish?
For Erik, his strong suit is the backstroke and IM, the sweet spot for Lochte, too. But the choice went beyond swimming.
From an early age, when he expressed an interest in Eric Liddell and “Chariots of Fire,” Erik was interested in more than just the athletic accomplishments of an athlete. That translated to Lochte, too.
“He’s just a really good person, and so Erik said ‘If I can meet anybody, I want to meet somebody who can teach me in the strokes I’m good at, who has good character and is a good person,’ ” Holly said.
Erik’s attitude, despite the daily challenges of cystic fibrosis that range from medication to physical therapy, has been exceptionally mature for someone so young.
It’s an attitude that dates back to his swimming days as an 8-year-old.
“When Erik was just a little boy, he was doing very well in swimming and he was so cute and he came to me and said ‘Mom, I’m getting ribbons’ and I’m like ‘Yes, you’re good at this,’ ” Holly Nieman said. “And he’d say, ‘Mom, I have cystic fibrosis.’ And I’m like ‘Yes, you do.’ And he’d say ‘Mom, I can use this swimming to bring hope to people.’ ”
Despite his son’s remarkable level of maturity, Erik’s father, Larry, said he hoped swimming would provide his son extra motivation to push through the day-to-day battles.
“Every once in a while, he needs a little bit of push,” Larry Nieman said. “His options are limited, just from where we live, so this shows him that it’s not over.
“There are lots of things that he can do and hopefully give him a little bit of encouragement.”
Hours in the water, literally swimming side-by-side with Lochte — sometimes even in the same lane — left Erik with more than just a little motivation.
Erik got first-hand training from one of the sport’s biggest stars, not to mention a revered coach. They broke down his form, working on the way his wrists enter the water or the way he points his feet. They worked on his underwater form, a strength of Lochte’s, the pair often pausing to look at the video screen in the Queen’s University aquatic center to break down the finer points from an underwater view showing footage of Lochte.
And after enough drilling, Erik and Lochte even raced from the blocks.
“I figured he was going to beat me,” Erik said. “But I wanted him to race me to his max.”
Lochte beat Erik in their IM race by 10 seconds, but Marsh disqualified him for an illegal turn. Winner: Erik Nieman.
In such an unforgettable day — beating an Olympian, training with a legendary coach and meeting an idol — what stuck out the most?
“Being able to meet the entire team and train and practice with them,” Erik said. “Hopefully, one day, I’ll be able to reach this level and I’ll be able to look back and help somebody else.”