June 2016 Athlete Profile
Hometown: Clifton Park
School: University at Buffalo
Family: Parents, Charlotte and George Hooper; Sister, Aimee
Primary Sport: Swimming
Secondary Sports: Open Water Swimming, Running, Biking, Triathlon
By Kristen Hislop
Many kids dream of ‘playing’ their sport at a Division I level. Out of eight-million high school athletes, only 480,000 will participate at NCAA sports. In swimming, a mere 2.8% of high school athletes go on to swim Division I. But who looks at the odds when you are passionate.
While starting at the age of six with lessons at the Albany Y, Nick Hooper says his love for swimming really intensified at age 15. His early successes before the age of 12 were often and big, with many records set. Then at age 12, intense migraines, as many as 20 a month, almost sidelined Nick. But his Albany Starfish Swim Club coach, “Lucky” Foreman, supported and helped Nick as he learned how to push through the pain. Pain so bad he would have to take injectable medicine or vomit mid-workout. “Being able to learn to push through the pain really showed me how great and rewarding the sport can be, and I fell in love with it,” says Nick.
Nick grew up in a swimming family with a strong emphasis on education. His dad, George, coached many top swimmers in the area with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Albany Starfish, and now the Clifton Park-Halfmoon Piranhas. His older sister, Aimee, who just graduated from James Madison University, swam all four years. Nick sees his family as great role models and credits his grandfather with being an academic inspiration. At Shenendehowa High School, Nick began the college search process, looking at academic institutions where he could pursue his athletic endeavors. As a top student he had many options, but as a sophomore his times weren’t quite the caliber Division I colleges wanted. Junior year he made a tough decision. Most swimmers will stay with their clubs teams and forgo the high school team to better prepare for college.
Nick decided to join the Shenendehowa Plainsman and swim under Coach Chuck Dunham for his senior year in addition to his club team. Nick says Coach Dunham “believed that I could achieve my goals and pushed me to my breaking point every day to achieve them.” It paid off with Nick swimming 4:35 in the 500 freestyle, breaking the Shen school record, and hitting the Division I schools radar screens. Coach Dunham notes, “Nick has the tremendous ability to bring the most out of himself each and every day. This is the kind of internal drive you want from any athlete. He demands so much that he often pushes himself to his absolute limit, both physically and mentally. He’s the Shen record holder in the 500 freestyle, the longest and most demanding event in high school swimming, and this is a great testament to his hard work.”
Nick chose Old Dominion University over Williams, Johns Hopkins and Villanova. Then during his freshman year, he had another roadblock. While training in Florida over January break, Nick had severe pain and vomiting. After nine months of exploratory scopes, MRIs and a colonoscopy, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in August of 2014. He redshirted at ODU that fall to understand the diagnosis and figure out how to live with it. After a bad reaction to the medication Humira the doctors looked for other causes of Nick’s symptoms. Roadblock number three was a positive test for Lyme disease, caused by a bite when he was 14. The doctors prescribed a high dose of antibiotics. Nick transferred to the University of Buffalo in August 2015, and the severe fatigue and pain persisted. In January 2016 he made the decision to come home. Treatment for chronic fatigue syndrome helped, but in April he was definitively diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
Coming home from college, taking the semester off to spend time at doctor’s office; this is not the ideal life of a 20-year-old. Yet when I met Nick at the Southern Saratoga YMCA pool, I found him to be an upbeat and energetic young man. He joined our noontime masters swim group and over a couple of weeks we learned his story. Never once does he feel sorry for himself. He was more interested in helping us getting ready for our masters swim meet. He stayed after practice to help with starts and turns and obliged our “come on we want to see you go under 50 [seconds] for 100 [meters].” After practice with us, he spends a few hours in the pool with the Piranhas swim club. A break at the doctor’s office and then to the weight room. He supplements his training with the water polo group. What does he do when he can’t swim? Study for the MCATs, of course? This young man can’t be held back from his goals including medical school and pediatric neurology!
He will head back to the University of Buffalo this fall to swim and complete his degree. He says, “I am approaching it the same as any other year. I do not let fear of the unknown dictate my life. I know I have this disease but I hope to be in remission by the start of school. Even if I am not 100% healthy by August, I still plan to work hard both academically and in swimming to achieve my goals. I know I just need to be more aware of my body, knowing when I can push, and when I have to back off a little bit.” Many people would have given up, but not Nick.
As a kid in college it is tough to find the right resources. A close group of friends know what he is going through, and he is connecting with others who live with Crohn’s disease. He’ll work with his UB coaches, but always draws on what coaches Foreman and Dunham taught him about himself. He says, “I have become very independent. When I am going through my worst times and severe pain I keep to myself. Being so sick for a while now has caused me to mature faster than most people my age. In doing so I’ve realized what I want to achieve. I’ve learned that swimming is important to me, by trying to swim through sickness. Sitting in classes feeling lousy and sleeping 16-plus hours a day makes it hard to do well, but I do my best. Swimming, school, and my close relationships are the most important to me.”
Nick continued, “A huge take away is that you are much stronger than you think you are. When you get a bad grade on a test it seems like the end of the world, but those things can be minuscule in the big picture. Putting things into perspective is important, and if something bad does happen you can always find the strength to carry on, even if it seems dim. Throughout all of this the most important medical knowledge I have gained is how doctor’s listen and work with patients. A lot of the information surrounding the disease I’ve learned from working on my biology degree, but the first-hand experience really is going to help me in my long-term goal of becoming a doctor.” Children will be lucky to have him as their doctor!
Since the odds are against him continuing to be a Division I athlete, I also asked Nick about that experience. As you might imagine, the competition is at a completely different level, and you’re expected to maintain the academic workload. The practice and class schedules leave little time for homework and sleep. He cautions young aspiring Division I athletes, “Make sure you love whatever sport you play. If you really love the sport, then you will be willing to push yourself, and work as hard as possible to achieve the goal of playing in college – because college athletics will push you to your limits.”
The Hoopers knew Nick would learn dedication, persistence, and the value of hard work through the sport of swimming. I am sure they wish daily that he didn’t have to deal with his roadblocks, but certainly his family, his sport and his desire to succeed have created one successful young man. May all of us live life with such passion and determination!
Kristen Hislop (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Clifton Park is a certified multisport coach who wants everyone to do, believe and achieve.