Cougar of the Week: Johan Nel
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Johan Nel (‘19) of Wayne, Maine grew up in South Africa, and did not swim competitively until middle school. He has not stopped since. In the NEWMAC Championships this past weekend, Nel qualified for the “B” finals in the 100-yard, and came close to doing so in the 200-yard breaststroke. He sat down with The Scarlet to talk about the team, swimming, and what he’s been up to since the season ended.
Scarlet: The team just came back from the NEWMAC Championships, where you faced some tough competition. What is the goal when you go into a meet with a bunch of other schools that have larger teams and better times?
Johan: You know, swimming is… an amazing sport because it’s a very individual sport while also being a very team based sport. So you have your team around you but when it comes down to it, what you’re working on is your own races and getting better times, so even if the team isn’t doing that well [since] we’re outnumbered, outsized, all that kind of stuff, it stills boils down to trying to get your best time. So when we’re going into NEWMACs it’s just a lot of like, ‘focusing on your own race’ type of thing.
Scarlet: During NEWMACs you competed neck-and-neck with Bill [Holloman (‘19)]. You had a three-second difference on the 100-yard breaststroke as well as in the 200. How competitive do you two get?
Johan: Bill and I? I mean, he’s definitely the faster breaststroke swimmer, and he also had a rough end of season this year. He tore his ACL in high school, and he sort of re-injured it like three weeks ago. So he’s been [unable to] really breaststroke kick. But its competitive because Bill and I are pretty close to each other, but like in-season we’re pretty far from each other. I’m a lot slower in-season and taper really well, so I drop a lot of time at the end of the season, but he’s consistently faster than me. So it’s a good test and he pushes me.
Scarlet: Was that part of your motivation? Were you viewing it as your opportunity to finish first for our team in the breaststroke this year?
Johan: No, not at all really. I hope very, very much that he would be faster than me and get a best time for him…I would rather have him swim a good race and, me a bad one, or have both of us swim a good race, and him drop his time just because I know he’s been working on it a lot. We train so much, and I’d just rather see him going fast. I’m not too competitive I guess.
Scarlet: What was it like being on a swim team with only 12 other guys this year?
Johan: I—I don’t know, it was pretty great, it’s a different team, it’s a different feeling. You can see it as a group of people coming together, we spend a lot of time together, and with every new year, you lose a class of seniors and you gain a class of freshmen. So a team is generally the same thing but the dynamic changes. My freshman year, last year, we had a really good senior group, and we had a really solid group of freshmen boys who came in, and so like that really just set us up for this year where we’re really close to our seniors. I mean, my recruitment trip was with Vlad [Kiveliyk (’17)], who’s our captain this year, so we’re really close with them, and the fact that there are only 12 of us made us really close.
Scarlet: Are there any negative implications of having a small team?
Johan: A small team? Yeah I guess. If you look at it just like, I don’t know if analytically is the right word, but if you just look at it, you don’t have as many people. Points-wise it’s very hard to win any meet, and when training against people, it’s also very hard because like we’ve got swimmers who are very fast but they don’t have other fast people to train with. And so those are the big ones. Socially, it doesn’t really bother [me]. If anything it makes it better because you’ve got a smaller team of people, you really get to know eachother a lot better.
Scarlet: Do you feel like you’re really good friends with everybody on the team? Have you always felt that way about teams you’ve been on?
Johan: Yes. [And] not to the level right now, not to the level at all. I’m very close friends with, without a doubt all the men’s team, and I’m closer with the women’s team than I have been with like any other team. I think it’s also because we’re such a small group, even the women’s side is pretty small, we’re all just very close-knit. I definitely feel like I could go to any of them and talk to them honestly about things that are bothering me or like hang out with them. I know things about everyone, you know, I could be like “I know a thing about this person.”
Scarlet: “A thing” being like what their hobbies are, or like a deep, dark secret?
Johan: No, not per say a deep, dark secret. Just what their hobbies are, how they act. If there’s someone who approaches me, I’m like “Okay, I know what this person likes,” I can talk to them about something that I know they like.
Scarlet: Let’s wind the clock back a little bit. I am guessing, like most swimmers, you started early. What made you stick with it?
Johan: I didn’t start swimming until like sixth grade.
Johan: Well, I swam while playing and stuff, but competitively I didn’t start until sixth grade. I’m originally from South Africa and so moving here my parents didn’t really know the American sports. They had me [play some], like football in the fall, I think I tried basketball…I tried all sorts of stuff, and they didn’t like the way it played out. What ended up happening is, one day my dad and I were swimming, just like playing around in the pool on vacation or something, and he was like ‘wow, Johan is beating me swimming, what’s going on?’ We were doing playful races like back and forth and he was like ‘I’m gonna sign you up for swim lessons.’ So I took like one fall worth of swim lessons and then he was like, ‘Alright, let’s call up the swim team.’ So I joined like the local club swim team, and you get hooked on it cause it’s an amazing workout. You’ve got cardio, you’ve got muscle-building, it has a great atmosphere about it, and I don’t know, it just sort of hooks you.
Scarlet: In what ways does it hook you?
Johan: I don’t know, the act of swimming itself is enjoyable.
Scarlet: What do you like about it?
Johan: The challenge, it’s a lot of thinking. You have to think about your technique. Like, breaststroke is the most annoying stroke. You’ll swim your 100, and you’ll get your time, but I want to go faster, so you swim harder, but then you’re getting a slower time. And you’re like, ‘this doesn’t make any sense,’ and it’s because the technique makes a difference as well. If you’re pushing so hard and you’re just a plow going through the water and you’re not hydrodynamic, you may as slow down. It’s constantly thinking, you’re thinking about everything. It’s hard sometimes to keep thinking about it.
Scarlet: What else do you enjoy about being on the team?
Johan: I love the feeling after swimming too, like after a really hard workout when your body is flooded with endorphins. The team is a huge aspect as well, all my best friends have always been on the swim team. It’s such a different experience, you see these people everyday and you build this strong connection with them. So that’s a big part of what keeps you swimming: It’s a big group of friends who you are bonded with in a way you can’t really describe.
Scarlet: Does it feel weird not being in the water anymore now that the season is over?
Johan: Yeah for sure. I haven’t worked out yet this week.
Scarlet: It’s okay, I haven’t either.
Johan: [Laughs] But yeah, we go from training trip, which I think was January 1 this year and go until like the sixteenth day of January, we swam every day in that period, pretty much twice a day. You go back into the regular season, and you are still getting your butt handed to you. And at the end of the season you are tapering down to rest your body but you’re still swimming everyday. And then the big meet comes and you’re here and it’s like you’re not swimming anymore or working out everyday. You can feel it, my body is like, ‘You gotta go do something,’ or, ‘you gotta run or lift.’ You get used to it, it’s part of your routine.
Scarlet: You must also be less hungry.
Johan: [Laughs] Yeah like day and night. Oh, I guess that’s another thing good about swimming; I like that I can eat whatever I want. I eat so much food, and I don’t have to worry about it because I swim so much.
Thanks the interview, Johan!