When Grand Canyon University's sports story is told years from now, swimmer Mark Nikolaev will need a prominent place in the first chapter. The Lopes senior swimmer made school history in late March becoming the first ever swimmer from the school to place at the NCAA Championships. The St. Petersburg, Russia native is also the first GCU student, in any sport, to earn NCAA All-American.
"I still don't know what it means. People say it's very important here. I just believe them," said Nikolaev, in an interview on campus.
Nikoleav's journey to GCU started half a world away, with an email.
"I guess I was the only guy that responded to him," said Steve Schaffer, GCU's head coach. "It seemed to me he had great grades and potential. It was between him and another guy and his grades were better. I lucked out."
"I sent a bunch of emails, 100 or 150," said Nikolaev with a smile. "Steve was one of the people that applied to me. He believed it wasn't a scam. It's really hard to check."
The GCU senior made his coach sweat during the NCAA final in Austin, Texas. He changed his swimming strategy in the 100-meter backstroke, going slower at first to conserve energy.
"What happened this year we thought would happen last year and we kind of had to go back to the drawing board. Had to figure out what I had to do to get him to swim a little better and sort it all out for him," said Schaffer. "Had me a little worried. He didn't tell me he was changing his race strategy. He went out a little slow. But he brought it back the second 50 of the race. It was actually the fastest second 50 in 100 backstroke ever. He got third place. We just exploded when he came up on the board. It was fantastic."
You can watch Nikolaev's race here.
He will now try to build on the momentum of his historic finish at home. After his interview, Nikolaev flew to Russia to compete in the national meet. If he finishes in the top two he will compete in the World Championships. If he finishes third or fourth he will compete in the University Games.
Nikolaev will return to the Valley in the fall to train. His coach will spend the summer looking for his next All-American.