TALLAHASSEE, Fla, October 18. WHEN the Florida State University swimming and diving teams take on Florida International and Florida A&M today at 11 a.m., most of the Seminoles will already have one collegiate meet under their belt this year. One exception is senior Wickus Nienaber, who missed last week's meet to represent his home country of Swaziland at the All Africa Games.
While he's not on the same level as Lewis & Clark or Neil Armstrong, Nienaber (Simugye, Swaziland/Sisekelo) is a pioneer in his home country. A small nation in southern Africa that was granted its independence from England in 1968, Swaziland measures 6,704 square miles or just slightly smaller than New Jersey.
With a population of 1,161,219, the talent pool in Swaziland isn't that rich. In fact, Nienaber is a one-man national team as the country's only representative at last summer's World Championships in Barcelona, Spain. He hopes to take his swimming to another level next summer, as he looks down the road the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.
"I've gotten used to it. I've traveled so much and done it for so long that I'm pretty much used to it," Nienaber said. "I am hoping that someone will join me soon."
A week ago Nienaber traveled to Abuja, Nigeria, to compete in the All-Africa Games, which draws in competitors from all over the continent. At the meet he competed the 50, 100 and 200-meter breaststroke events, as well as the 200-meter individual medley. His best finish was a fourth-place mark in the 200 IM, while he also placed in fifth in the 200 breast. He added a pair of sixth-places in the 50 and 100-meter breaststroke races.
One of the benefits of being a one-man national team is that every time Nienaber posts a personal-best time during international competition, he resets his own national records. That was the case this summer at the World Championships where he had one of his best meets. "To an extent I've pretty much set the standards, they used to be a lot lower," Nienaber noted.
"They were basically just "B" times that someone could make and then they had an "A" time as something to improve on. But as I've improved they've moved those marks along and now the "B" time is a goal for me and the "A" time is more along the lines of an Olympic standard"
Benefiting his training is the fact that he does not have conflicting coaching philosophies to deal with between his national coach and Seminole head coach Neil Harper. The FSU deck boss also serves as Nienaber's international mentor.
"When we start training for the Olympics after the NCAAs in the end of March, I know pretty much what he's done all year," Harper said. "We have some swimmers who go back home and they get with a coach that they haven't worked with for a while. The set up we have, me being his college coach and his national coach, certainly benefits him."
A benefit that Nienaber does not have is the tradition and structure of an established national program that most of his international competitors have. Until he came to Florida State, his mother Celma coached Nienaber and the team dynamic that he has with the Seminoles was limited to his household.
"I used to train by myself, so I was used to it, but now I'm training with a team so I've seen that there is another side of swimming," Nienaber admitted.
"I really miss it when I go away and don't have my teammates there to push during training or just the comradely. You miss that sometimes and I see it among other teams and I know what I'm missing."
Throughout the year Nienaber and Harper must balance his goals of preparing for the NCAA Championships and the Olympic games. Nienaber must also perform another balancing act, keeping up with his schoolwork while competing for his country and his school. But that shouldn't be a difficult task for someone who has been carrying the entire weight of a country on his shoulders.