Justin Nicholas
Justin Nicholas
Year: Class of 2012
Sport: Swimming & Water Polo

Justin Nicholas, who held the state community college 200-yard breast stroke record for 23 years, still laughs when he thinks about what pumped him up to topple the competition that momentous day in 1988.

Swim Coach Warren Lager “was a good motivator,” Nicholas said recently on the phone, adding that the coach understood how to inspire him by leveraging his pride. 

Nicholas had told Lager that a student who had beat him in a race a few years earlier would be facing him in an upcoming competition. A few days later, before the meet, a teammate told Nicholas that he’d heard that same student bragging about beating him in the locker room.

“I got so fired up,” Nicholas said. “I set the national record by 2 seconds and the state time by 7 seconds.” It was a record that Nicholas would hold nationally for nine years and at the state level until 2011. 

“It didn’t dawn on me until many years later that Warren probably told them to make up that story and the guy never said a word,” Nicholas said. “Years later, I mentioned it to Warren and he just chuckled.”

Today as a swim and water polo coach in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Texas, Nicholas said he still uses that story to motivate his swimmers and players. “I tell them, ‘The pain is momentary but pride is forever.’ One kid put it in his Facebook page.” 

Nicholas, who was at College of Marin just one year, won California Community College Swimmer of the Year in 1988. At the same time he qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials.

“Justin was an unbelievably hard worker,” said Lager, who is still coaching for College of Marin. “You don’t accomplish what he did without a tremendous work ethic. He’s one of the best that’s ever been.” 

While at College of Marin, Nicholas earned Junior College All-American in three events. He was part of the first water polo team after an 11-year hiatus and was named to the U.S. Community College All-American Team.

Lager just laughed when he was reminded of the rumored white lie before the 1988 race. 

“Part of what coaches do is they do anything to get a positive result,” Lager said. “Justin was a positively emotional person so I knew if someone was calling him out, telling Justin that was all that was needed to beat him soundly…Coaches are tricky.”

From College of Marin, Nicholas transferred to California State University, Bakersfield where he continued to excel, coming in second four times in Division 2 NCAA (100/200 breaststrokes) and winning four-time conference champion and four time All-American. On the national level, he managed four times to rank in the top eight in the USA Swimming National Championship.

Throughout his swimming career, Nicholas has battled a shoulder injury but his attitude was upbeat.

“He really enjoyed work for work’s sake and always had a super positive attitude at practice,” Lager said. “It rubbed off on everybody.” Nicholas had praise and encouragement for his teammates “and wasn’t above placing a gentle ribbing to someone who wasn’t doing his best. In some ways he was an extension of the coach. He really helped those other guys to do greater things.”

Nicholas later coached at De Anza Community College and took great pleasure in his team’s victories – especially when it was over one of Lager’s teams.