Tokyo – Adrift

September 3, 2020

Newcastle-born Nick Pyle made waves as a 17-year-old when he won a surprise gold medal at the 2018 British Championships in the men’s 50m backstroke. His rising star status was cemented later that year when he helped secure two relay titles at the European Championships. As one of the North East’s most promising hopes for Tokyo 2020, Nick relocated to Stirling last September and was on course to achieve his Olympic dream. Then coronavirus hit and with it, the closures of swimming pools and the postponement of the Games. For most elite athletes – who work tirelessly to achieve peak physical fitness at precisely the right time – the pandemic has devastated finely tuned training schedules, but 19-year-old Nick is determined to remain positive, as he tells Alison Cowie

Nick Pyle’s talent for swimming was recognised as a young child during lessons at Ponteland Leisure Centre.

He impressed his teacher by how quickly he mastered the basics and it was soon suggested he join a club. At eight years old, he started training with Newburn at West Denton Pool.

Though he shone in all swim strokes, it was in backstroke that the youngster from Westerhope excelled.

“I really enjoyed swimming backstroke and found it the easiest,” Nick explains.

The St Cuthbert’s High School pupil continued to make headway in the pool and by 13, was training up to six times a week – although, he managed to avoid the early mornings that are synonymous with club swimming.

“I only had to do one early morning a week. I couldn’t get my head around waking up at 5am,” Nick admits.

Preferring to train after school, Nick had limited time for the usual teenage pursuits. Luckily, he had understanding friends who not only accepted his swimming commitments but encouraged them.

“My school friends understood that I couldn’t go out in the afternoons, or do certain things, especially if I had a competition. Thankfully, I never had any pressure from anyone to do anything I didn’t want to.”

Nick became part of Newcastle Swim Team after his club merged with Newcastle City, and he was soon competing in national and international competitions at a junior level.

However, it was his stellar performance at the 2018 British Championships where, at just 17, he triumphed in the men’s 50m backstroke, which really got Nick noticed.

Seen as a surprise at the time, it gave the young swimmer the confidence that he had what it took to compete at the highest level.

“It was the first time I’d done something really good and I put it down to having the belief that I could achieve great things,” he says.

Later that year, Nick took home two gold medals at the European Championships in Glasgow as part of the 4x100m medley relay and the 4x100m mixed relay teams.

Competing alongside the likes of Olympic champion Adam Peaty boosted Nick’s confidence further.

“The Europeans were a big learning curve but the more experienced swimmers gave me advice on how to deal with things. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to do well,” he says.

In 2019, Nick qualified for the World Championships in Gwangju and was selected by Sport Newcastle as one of the region’s most promising Olympic hopes.

“The programme was aimed at young athletes who had a good chance to go to the Tokyo 2020 or Paris 2024 Olympics,” Nick explains. “They provided funding, which for me, helped pay for a couple of training trips to America.”

2019 also saw Nick make the decision to leave his native Newcastle to join the prestigious University of Stirling swim team.

“I felt it was time to move on,” Nick says. “I chose the University of Stirling because it has an excellent programme and I could access more resources that would benefit me in the long run. I also felt Stirling would be a place I would be happy living.”

Although Nick admits it took a few months to adjust to his new life in Scotland, he soon settled in and, along with new coach Steve Tigg, began to see improvements in the pool.

At the start of 2020, Nic performed strongly in training and at competitions, and he was on course to achieve the Olympic qualifying times in April.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the resulting lockdown saw the closure of swimming pools across the UK.

Nick, along with his fellow elite swimmers, were literally left ‘high and dry’.

Returning to his family home in Newcastle when the lockdown restrictions were announced, Nick kept positive.

“It was the first time since I’d started swimming that I was able to take a break. It meant I could almost reset.

“I also had a niggling shoulder injury so the three months I wasn’t able to be in a pool allowed me to improve my health.”

Nick’s coaches maintained regular contact with him during lockdown and there were weekly Zoom catch up meetings.

Thankfully, Nick and his fellow swim mates were allowed to return to the pool in July – albeit with strict restrictions in place.

“There’s a lot of social distancing,” Nick explains. “You also fill out a health form and get your temperature taken every morning and have to keep your mask on until you start swimming.

“Once you’re in the pool, there’s only one person allowed in a lane at a time.

Despite the restrictions, Nick is relishing being back in the water and, along with his coach, is working to achieve his pre-lockdown fitness.

With Tokyo postponed for 12 months, Nick will have to adjust his training objectives to ensure he can firstly achieve the qualifying times required to book his place on Team GB, next April, and then – all being well – peak again for the Games itself in August.

Longer term, the young swimmer has an eye on the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where his ambition is to make his mark in both individual and relay races.

“I’ll probably be in a better position in 2024 to push for an individual final and challenge for a medal,” Nick says.

While the Toyko Olympics has been set adrift for the time being, it seems a global pandemic cannot diminish this talented young swimmer’s resilience, dedication and ambition.

Watch this space.

Nick Pyle
Photos of Nick were taken in August 2019 as part of North East Times’ ‘Tokyo and Beyond’ feature.

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