Rarely a day goes by when Dr. Chris Nicol does not have a busy schedule. And yet, in between the phone calls, meetings and deadlines, Nicol makes a point to keep one window of time open for just himself – call it pool maintenance.
You'll find Nicol in the U of L's Max Bell Regional Aquatic Centre pool nearly every lunch hour, swimming his customary two kilometres before getting back to his duties as dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. Go a little earlier in the day and you'll likely catch his son, third-year history major, Jeffrey, training with the Pronghorns swim team. It wasn't too long ago that Nicol's wife Lorraine, a research associate in the Economics Department and PhD student in water management, was also a pool regular.
Swimming has been at the heart of everything the Nicol family has done for the better part of the last 15 years, and with Jeffrey (20) just hitting his prime and younger sister Rachel (17) blowing up on the international scene this past summer, it promises to be a central focus moving forward.
"There wasn't really any grand design to turn them all into competitive swimmers," Chris says of his children. Don't forget 19-year-old Alastair, who also swam competitively before turning his focus to music. "At an early age though, because Lorraine and I were quite often at the pool, it was an obvious family activity to do."
It runs in the genes, as Chris was a highly competitive swimmer in his native Scotland before coming to Canada to compete for Queen's University while achieving his master's and PhD degrees. A breaststroker, Chris placed third in the Ontario university championships in the 100m breast and would later win both the 100m and 200m breast events in the inaugural World Masters Games in Toronto in 1985.
By the time he met and married Lorraine, they were working at the University of Regina and swimming had become a big part of both of their lives. The kids naturally took to the water and when competitive swimming called, the parents, just as naturally, worked it into their routine. When the couple moved to Lethbridge 10 years ago, Lorraine set aside certain career aspirations and made swimming the focus. She was president of the L.A. Swim Club for four years and a member of the board for a total of six.
"For parents who are so connected to their kids through a sport like this, the act of parenting, I think, becomes exceptionally easy," says Lorraine. "I can't remember when I've ever had an argument with my kids.
"You spend so much time with them that they know how much we've supported their sport. I wouldn't call them sacrifices but if I'd made other career choices, I would not have had that flexibility to spend 30 to 40 hours a week with them and their swimming."
The sport has literally taken them around the globe. Switzerland, Luxembourg, England, Spain, Costa Rica, and just this past summer, Singapore and Hawaii, have all been visited to attend various meets and training camps.
"I don't think we've ever taken a holiday that hasn't been connected to a swim meet," says Lorraine.
All the while, the couple has had to balance their own academic careers and instill a work ethic in their children that speaks to both athletics and studies.
"You get efficient at using your time," says Chris. "These guys have picked up on that, having seen how we operate, in terms of if we have work to do, you get down to it."
Jeffrey, who achieved personal best times in each of his long course swims in Victoria this past spring, says the student-athlete balance isn't always easy.
"I'd say the hardest year was Grade 12 when I really had to bear down and focus on my academics," he says. "My swimming suffered that year, I didn't post any best times, but it paid off in that it got me the marks I needed to get into a good university."
The discipline of elite competitive swimming transfers well into the world of academia.
"You don't always see immediate results in the work you put in," says Chris. "Sometimes you have to put in a bit more time than you thought but you have to stick at it and not give up. They've obviously learned that with swimming. When it comes to the academic side, maybe we have to do a bit more convincing, but I think they're getting the message."
Whether Rachel keeps tradition alive and comes to the U of L next fall remains to be seen, but with Jeffrey still going strong with the Horns and both Chris and Lorraine busy with their roles at the U of L, expect to see the Nicol family as regulars in the pool area for the foreseeable future.
"I can't even describe how incredible a journey this has been, and it has helped both Chris and I grow as individuals and as parents as well," says Lorraine. "And to hear them still say, after so many ups and downs and injuries and highs and lows, that they are still excited to swim – I love hearing that, because then we know the journey is just beginning."
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· Jeffrey made huge strides with the Horns program last season. "From my perspective, he made a major transition and ramped things up to a whole new level," says Chris, as Jeffrey jumped from top-20 status to top-10 in the national 200m breaststroke rankings. "In terms of where he was last year to this year, he's gone to another tier on the national scene."
· Rachel exploded as an international star this past summer, winning three medals (gold, two bronze) at the Youth Olympics in Singapore.
· Both Jeffrey and Rachel benefit from work with sports psychologists, while Chris and Lorraine have provided the pair with tutors, many of which are Education students at the U of L, to help with schooling.
· Chris has been dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science for 10 years. Lorraine, who has two master's degrees, is currently in her second year of a PhD studying biosystems and biodiversity.