When 19-year-old Nicolas Nieboer competed in his first handbike competition at Saginaw Valley State University last June, he had no idea he would qualify for the 2017 Junior Nationals Para Youth Championships, the oldest continuously held competitive sports event in North America for junior athletes with physical disabilities.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” admits Nieboer, a Kalamazoo resident born with spina bifida. Nieboer is in a wheelchair and had never competed in a competitive sports event before this 10K road race.
“I really didn’t know anything about it (the race) except that I was going to see where I placed and see how good of a racer I actually am,” he says.
Nieboer came in first in his age group and third in the overall race of approximately 20 racers. Having ridden a recreational handbike since age 7, he thought prior to the competition, “Maybe I have a shot of doing well in this.” After flashing across the finish line he got his answer: a qualifying time for Junior Nationals of 24 minutes and 38 seconds — and that was his first time on a racing bike and without any training. Even though he opted not to compete in the 2017 national competition, the Saginaw race pushed Nieboer toward a goal of competing in the 2018 Junior Nationals, to be held July 21-28 in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It also inspired him toward an even bigger dream: the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games.
“That’s been my dream since I was a little kid,” Nieboer says, referring to the Paralympics. “I believe that I can make it. I just have to work really hard every day. I have to bike every day. I’ve got to work out every day. I’ve got to eat right. I know the things that I’ve got to do — I just have to stay consistent with it — and know that I’ll be able to get there.”
His training isn’t for the faint of heart. In the summer, Nieboer bikes 15-20 miles per day and lifts weights five to six times per week, concentrating on curls, military presses, bench presses and handstand pushups. For cardio exercise during the winter months, he does laps in his wheelchair.
“You really have to have a lot of shoulder muscle,” Nieboer explains.
He also eats a gluten-free diet, which has helped him shed 44 pounds in the last year.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” he says.
In the Nieboer household, sports are a top interest. The entire Nieboer family “loves competition,” Nieboer says, leaning forward, his eyes lighting up and a huge grin spreading across his face.
Nick’s dad, Steve, was an all-state running back for Kalamazoo Christian High School and went on to play for Western Michigan University until an injury took him out of the sport. Nieboer’s sister Josie played varsity soccer for Kalamazoo Christian for four years and was on Spring Arbor College’s soccer team before being sidelined by numerous injuries. Though his mom, Joy, doesn’t participate in sports, she is immersed in them with the family, especially Michigan football games. Even Grace, his younger sister who leans toward creative endeavors, will watch football, Nieboer says.
Sports have been a part of Nieboer’s life since childhood, when he began playing wheelchair tennis at West Hills Athletic Club and wheelchair basketball at The Point. Nieboer says his dad taught him to throw a football, shoot hoops and something even greater: “He’s taught me to never give up on my dreams. And I want to live that out.”
Hoping for a new bike
As Nieboer prepares to compete in the 2018 Junior Nationals competition, he notes the only obstacle on the path to achieving his goal is purchasing a racing bike. His current bike is 12 years old and designed for recreational use. Nieboer has his sights set on an Invacare Top End Force K Handcycle Kneeler, a model used by Cycliste Internationale Para-cycling Circuit champions Oz Sanchez and Tim DeVries.
“I truly think the kneeler goes faster because you lean forward and you have more momentum that way,” Nieboer says.
But racing bikes don’t come cheap, ranging from $7,000 to $10,000. Nieboer has launched a GoFundMe page to help raise the funds and has raised more than $4,500.
Nieboer plans on concentrating on the 10K, but for fun a friend timed him in the 100 meters. The fastest time for the 100 meters on a handbike is 14.84 seconds, held by Matt Cameron at the Sydney Track Classic in 2012. Nieboer tried it on his own handbike, not a racing handbike like the one Cameron used.
“I ended up getting 14.92,” Nieboer says. “I’m .08 seconds away from the world record.”
As for those handstand pushups? Nieboer is up to 65. Someday, he says, he might try beating the world record for handstand pushups and the 100-meter handbike racing record as well.
“Those are just side dreams,” Nieboer says, chuckling.
Right now he is singularly focused on the Junior Nationals, which would take him one step closer to his ultimate dream: Tokyo 2020. After watching the Olympic Games throughout his life, and seeing the winner taking a victory lap and waving the United States flag, he says he always thinks, “Man, I want to be that person.”
“That’s what gives me motivation every day. It’s just trying your best and doing everything you can to achieve your goal,” Nieboer says. “My motto is ‘Don’t stop when you’re tired; stop when you’re done.’”