Nicholas Neckles’ long and exciting career in swimming has played out like Ravel’s famous ballet musical Bolero, with periods of quiet but steady progression, crescendos of excellence, decrescendos of disappointment, but finally, a gratifying conclusion leaving a feeling of satisfaction and the calming strains of achievement.
The most thrilling moment in the ballet for Nicholas came in 1996 when, at 17 years old, he paraded the Barbados colours at his first Olympics Games in Atlanta, USA. Competing in the 100 & 200 M backstroke and establishing two new Barbados national records, he described this as the most ‘pleasurable’ of his three Olympic appearances. The excitement of this moment was amplified by the fact that Barbados had not sent a swimmer to the Olympics since 1988, a hiatus of eight years. Furthermore, he was sharing the spotlight with Leah Martindale who was also making her debut at the pinnacle of elite swimming.
The airport reception by the Government of Barbados which the two received on their return to the country was the first sign of the Nation’s pride; the welcome in the VIP lounge – a threshold he had never crossed before – the crowd gathered at the airport to celebrate the achievement, foreshadowed the euphoria that would come in 2000 when Obadale Thompson returned from the 2000 Olympics with a bronze medal. For the first time Nicholas truly realised that his performance mattered. He had never experienced such acceptance by the Public before. A ring engraved with the Olympic symbol, presented by the Swimming Association at a reception later, remains a lasting symbol of that endorsement. The pride, the sense of achievement, the realisation of what that achievement meant to his country, fuelled the desire for more and set the direction for the next fourteen years of his life.
But how did “the bolero” begin? Everyone around him was swimming – friends, family – so developing an interest was inevitable. His initiation to the sport and his early development were shaped by a sting of dedicated women; one Jenny taught him how to swim at the age of 7 years in the pool at Casuarina Hotel (now Almond Casuarina), another Jenny taught him how to work out in the gym. But it was his mother Patsy, who became the major architect of his ascent in the sport. Nicholas began his competitive career in Stingrays Swim Club under the tutelage of Coach John McConney. Later he swam with Heatwave Aquatics and after a brief sojourn with Pirates Swim Club he navigated his way to Silverfins where he dropped anchor.
Through all the transitions, Patsy presided over the development of his stroke technique. Her meticulous attention to detail and passion for excellence, perhaps linked to her profession as a Nurse and a Pharmaceutical Sales Agent, ensured that Nicky was equipped with the necessary tools during his formative years. In 1993 Patsy took complete control of Nicky’s training and soon formed a group of swimmers which included Chantal Dulieu whom she coached along with Nicky. She enrolled in the American Coaching programme –ASCA – to ensure that she possessed the knowledge for such an undertaking. During one of her sojourns she met Puerto Rican coach Fernando Delgado and formed a partnership which would become the driving force behind Nicky’s development as a competitive swimmer. Delgado wrote Nicky’s workouts and Patsy skillfully supervised their execution. The rest, as they say, is history.
In a quiet and unassuming way, without fanfare, Nicky Neckles pursued his career which is dotted with several firsts for Barbados. He collected his first gold medal at the Carifta Swimming Championships in 1991, at age 12, becoming Barbados’ first gold medalist at this Championship. Two years later, competing in the 13-14 age group, he collected nine medals of which seven were gold. This was the highest number of medals to have been achieved by a Barbadian male at a single meet at that time. He was not yet specialising as a backstroker as Patsy had developed his competence in all strokes and distances. He competed from the 50M to 1500M. It was Coach Delgado who later identified his special competence in the backstroke. Nicky had thought all along that his specialist stroke would be butterfly, but on visiting Puerto Rico and competing in the 400M IM, Coach Delgado pointed out to him that his strength in swimming lay in the backstroke, an opinion he accepted without question.
Continuing his string of successes in 1993 Nicky captured Barbados’ first gold medal, in the 200M backstroke, at the CCCAN Swimming Championships in Havana, Cuba. He also won a bronze in the100M backstroke. In 1994 he captured his first ever medals at the Caribbean Islands Swimming Championships (CISC) – one gold and two silver. That same year he also qualified for his first senior multi-sport competition, the Commonwealth Games in Victoria, Canada. Then 15 years of age, he finished 14th and 15th overall in the 100M and 200 M backstroke respectively.
Nicky continued on his history-making path in 1995, winning eight gold medals at the Carifta Swimming Championships! The build up to the Atlanta Olympics had begun, the tempo of the bolero was quickening! His gold and silver medal-winning performance at the CCCAN Championships held in Mexico later that year clinched the qualifying Olympic standards and earned him an invitation to participate in the Pan Pacific Championships in the USA.
One may wonder where Nicky got the motivation to continue to pursue excellence in this highly competitive and grueling sport.
“My mother taught me to be focused and unrelenting in the pursuit of my goals,” he said, “She never allowed me to do anything halfheartedly. She always instilled in me not to allow other people’s expectations to upset what you have planned for your own life and pleasure. Do not be pressured by other people’s expectations. Have your own expectations and goals.”
The period between the 1996 and 2000 Olympics was indeed very busy years for Nicky as he continued his quest. Competing in the CCCAN Championships in 1997 he won two silver medals. In 1998 he established two national records in the 100M and 200M backstroke events, and qualified for the 1999 World Championships in Hong Kong. There he finished 30th in the 100M backstroke, making the qualifying time in this event for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Nicky rates the 2000 Sydney games as one of the lowest points of his career, describing it as ‘a horrible experience’ and his performance as “disappointing”. He placed 35th at that event and did not improve his times. The next four years, leading up to Athens 2004, he described as a truly frustrating period. He had reached the cross roads in his swimming career and moved around quite a bit during this period.
His restlessness took him to Florida where he trained with Jack Nelson for a short period and then on to Bolles School of Swimming. But it was in the UK that Nicky found his fit in Coach Chris Martin with whom he trained for a while. Unfortunately, Martin soon moved on, and the frustration of adapting to another Coach along with the persistent but uncharacteristic lack of improvement in his times was a hard pill to swallow. During this period he seriously considered quitting the sport. It was his upbringing that supported him during this difficult time as he drew on the teachings of his mother.
In 2001 the rhythm of the bolero changed again with the help of Coach Chris Martin who had by then returned to the UK. His times started to move again, and he established two national records in the 100M and 200M backstroke at the Janet Evans International Championships in 2002 in Southern California, winning a bronze medal in the 200M event. He placed 4th in the Pan American Games and established another first for Barbados – the first male swimmer to make it to the final in a major international event. In 2002 he posted three new national records in the 50, 100 and 200 M backstroke events, securing his entry to the Commonwealth Games in Manchester where he made the semi-finals in the 100 & 200 M backstroke.
It was Neckles who won the first ever medal in swimming for Barbados at the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Games, held in El Salvador in 2002, collecting two bronze medals in the 100 & 200 M backstroke events. Qualifying for the Moscow World Championships, he finished 18th, in the 200M backstroke, just outside a semi-final spot, the highest ever placing for a Barbadian at the World Championships, and set new national records in the process in the 50, 100 & 200 M backstroke events. The following year, he grabbed 4th place in the 200 M backstroke at the Pan-American Games in the Dominican Republic, established a new national record in the event, and qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 100 & 200 M backstroke. His times of 56:60 and 2:03.33 respectively both set new national records with a world ranking at that time of 57th.
In Athens in 2004, he raised the national bar once again, posting 56:32 in the 100 M backstroke and 2:02.84 in the 200M, earning a world ranking of 25th and 23rd respectively in these events. He remembers feeling a sense of satisfaction with this performance as his times were on target with his goals. His feeling was well founded as the following year saw continued improvement.
At the British ASDA meet he took splits off his time in the 200 M backstroke reducing it to 2:02.33 and the 100 M backstroke to 56:25. These achievements earned him rankings of 9th in the 200 and 12th in the 100 M. He finished the year with a 7th place finish at the World University Games in Turkey where he clocked 2:02.92 in the 200 M backstroke and 56:62 in the 100 M backstroke. He established a new national record of 26:26 in the 50 M backstroke, a record he still holds today.
These performances provided the core motivation going into the year 2006 when, at age 27 he was to achieve his best performance yet. He exuded confidence during this period. He had trained in Australia for a short stint. He was extremely relaxed. Coming into the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne he knew he had to beat the Canadian, and he did, but he had not planned for the New Zealander and narrowly missed the bronze medal. He took a huge chunk off of his 200 M backstroke time to post another national record in 2:01.25 for the 4th place, down from 2:02.92; and 56:12 in the 100M backstroke, down from 56:62.
Narrowly missing out on the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games was an emotionally crushing experience. ‘I felt heartbroken, I wanted that bronze for my Country,’ he said. He felt he had let down Barbados. But support came from his team mates, Bradley Ally and Andrei Cross, and Coach Abdul who encouraged him to put his disappointment behind him and to look ahead to the next challenge.
Nicky identified The CAC Games 2006 as his last successful competition. His preparation for these games included a short training stint in Australia. But before that he claimed his redemption from his disappointment in Melbourne with a bronze medal at the USA Open in Indiana and became the first Barbadian male to win a medal at this meet. The press headlines heralded the achievement: “NICHOLAS NECKLES MAKES HISTORY AT the USA OPEN 2006”.
On his way to the bronze he cracked through the formidable line up of USA swimmers in what was a very close race. The results read: Roland Rudolf (University of Florida), 2:02.27-1ST place; Matt Hawes (U.B.C. Dolphins), 2:02.44 – 2ND place; NICHOLAS NECKLES (BARBADOS), 2:02.63 – 3RD place. He recorded this achievement as one of the high points in his career.
Then came the CAC Games where he produced another sterling performance. He hauled in three gold medals, in the 50M, 100M & 200M backstroke events, creating history once again for Barbados’ swimming. He was placed third overall in the FINA times ranking at the meet for the time done in the 200 M backstroke event, 2:00.85. Nicholas Neckles was also ranked first among the male participants from the Caribbean region. He established two Central American records bettering the 2:01.53 for the 200 M backstroke done by Cuba’s Neisser Bent at the 1998 Games in Maracaibo, Venezuela. He also established two Barbados National records in the process. He swam the lead off leg of the 400M medley relay, the 100M backstroke, in a new national record time of 56:09 and set the stage for the bronze medal for the team. These two records in the 100M & 200M backstroke still stand today as the fastest times achieved by a Barbadian male in backstroke.
This string of performances earned him a nomination for the award of Senior Outstanding Sports person by the Barbados National Sports Council in 2006. Just after the Xll World Championship, the President of the Barbados Swimming Association emailed Nicky to congratulate him on making the semi-final. In his response he noted that he had always believed in himself as being one of the best swimmers in the World.
In 2006 Nicky returned to home base where he continued his training in the local national programme for a short period before travelling to Australia once again to fine tune his training for the 2007 Pan American Games in Brazil. He rated his performance at those games as another disappointing experience and made a decision to retire from competitive swimming immediately after.
Nicky took time off to get started in his career after graduating from Stirling University in Scotland with a Bachelors Degree in Economics. After a short break which included a stint working in Tortola, the lure of the pool beckoned and he came out of retirement. He continued to train in Barbados during this period with Coach Abdul Sharif and set his sights on representing Barbados at the 2010 CAC Games in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was where it had all begun for him and he thought that it would be fitting to finish his competitive swimming career there – Puerto Rico would mark the Alpha and the Omega, the Genesis and the Revelation.
In his build up towards his final staging he was yet to pass one more test. He journeyed to Montreal, Canada with Coach Abdul in 2009 where he competed in the Coupe du Quebec. The result -one gold medal in the 50M back, and two bronze medals in the 100m and 200M backstroke. A sterling performance, another first for his Country: the first Barbadian male swimmer to have produced such results at this competition.
He had planned that the 50M backstroke would be his target for the CAC Games 2010, but during his training he was encouraged to prepare for the 100 & 200 M as well. His goal on this occasion was to make a podium appearance for any colour medal. He did it. Amidst very tough competition, he swam to the silver medal in the 100 M backstroke event, boosting the national medal pot. He felt proud of his achievement and the Nation rose up and applauded his contribution.
His spirit returned to calm waters, his mission was accomplished.
The elated Chef de Mission, Craig Archer opined:
“For Nicky Neckles to win a silver medal was fantastic. He now has one of each colour to add to the bronze he won in 2002 and the gold in 2006. He is just an incredible athlete. He has won more medals at CAC than any other Barbadian athlete.” – Nation News-Tuesday, July 20,2010.
Coach Abdul bubbling with emotion reflected:
“He is indeed a true champion, he has made us all proud. He put in 100% to make those results. It took a lot out of him in the last two years; but each time he raced he got better and better and was exactly where he wanted to be. It was through commitment and a lot of dedication that he was able to come very close to his personal best times.”
Nicholas Neckles’ performance through the years stands out as a beacon for the next generation of swimmers. Disciplined, determined, committed and hardworking, he is a glowing example of how to marry dedication to excellence in sport with dedication to excellence in academics. One other lesson which he leaves for all young athletes is that talent alone will not do it: mental focus, the desire to achieve, confidence and a belief in oneself are paramount. His exemplary conduct and outstanding Ambassadorship for Barbados are hallmarks of his career.
“I will miss competing, the feeling of satisfaction when you put together a plan and you look up at the display board and see the goal you had in mind come to fruition. There is nothing else that I know that can generate this feeling.” Nicky said in announcing his retirement. Sports have a way of igniting these feelings and he is not sure in what capacity these emotions could come again.
FIRM CRAFTSMAN OF HIS FATE, NICKY NECKLES WROTE HIS NAME ON HISTORY’S PAGE AND TAKES HIS PLACE AMONG THE GUADIANS OF OUR HERITAGE. He finished his career on his own terms, and with the calm but fighting spirit that marked his 24 years in the sport.
There was no fading in his “bolero“, He stopped the orchestra!