In the Spotlight

Erik Nieman puts in two hours of swim training per day, four to six days a week. But his hard work is paying off, and he's got the trophies to prove it!
Erik Nieman puts in two hours of swim
training per day, four to six days a week.
But his hard work is paying off, and he’s
got the trophies to prove it!

Erik Nieman -- The Next Michael Phelps?

Half boy, half fish? Watching nine-year-old Erik Nieman streak through the water, you might think so. Having started swimming as a mere “minnow” of three years, Erik is happiest when he’s in the pool.

According to his Mom, Holly, when Erik was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 10-months-old, she asked his physician what kind of exercise would help him increase his lung capacity. “She highly recommended swimming because you can begin it fairly young, do it for life and it’s not hard on the body,” says Holly. “Plus, it helps the lungs since you have to be able to breathe deeply and keep your head in the water long enough to get going.”

Holly says it didn’t even occur to her when Erik first started swimming that he would be on the swim team. “But one step follows another, and before I knew it, one day the school swim coach came to me and announced, ‘he’s on the team,’” she explains.

In It to Win It

Practically from the time he started competing at age 7, Erik started winning ribbons. A kid who’s “in it to win it,” he is one of seven swimmers in the “10 and under” division for his Arkansas team. The team recently competed in the 2008 Central Zones competition held by USA Swimming, a national competitive swimming organization. Erik’s specialty is the 50-meter backstroke.

The difficulty of qualifying for “Zones,” Holly explains, can be equated to the difficulty of being fast enough to run a five-minute mile. Qualifying at age nine is rare; qualifying at age nine with a lung disease places him in a one in a million position.

The Next Michael Phelps?

Erik puts in about two hours of swim training four to six days a week. Add that to the two to three hours of physical therapy for CF he does each day, and you get a schedule that even a top athlete would find daunting. But not Erik.

“Erik is the type of child who looks at life with energy and excitement and joy, no matter how hard it is,” Holly says. “He does what he needs to in order to stay healthy and tries to have fun in the process.” She jokes that he’s a lot like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. “When he’s excited, like when he made it to Zones,” he practically leapt out of the pool,” she says. “I still don’t know how he did it! He bounced around, grinning from ear to ear. He couldn’t keep the energy contained in his body.”

“Some people call me the ‘next Michael Phelps,’” Erik says with a grin. His reason for wanting so much to win is simple. “I want to show other people with diseases that you can still have hopes and achieve your dreams, even if you have difficulties you fight every day,” he says, and dives right back into the pool.