As Trinidad and Tobago looks forward to the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, we profile some of this country’s elite athletes and past performers. Today we feature swimmer Nikoli Blackman, who is already making a big splash on the international scene.

Q&A – Nikoli Blackman

After announcing himself on the world stage as a triple gold medalist for Trinidad and Tobago at the 2023 Commonwealth Youth Games (CYG)—hosted at the National Aquatic Centre in Couva—and a 2023 World Junior swimming champion, Nikoli Blackman has taken up a new challenge.

The next phase of his academic and sporting career is US-based, with Nikoli joining the “Volunteers” athletics programme at Knoxville’s University of Tennessee (Tennessee is known as the Volunteer State). The swimming sensation still had a moment to share his experiences from the last semester and his thoughts on a superb 2023 season.

From his 2023 season to his new school environment and his personal music playlist, we get some insight into Nikoli Blackman through his chat with SporTT.

Q: How have you adapted since moving to the US?

A: School-wise, it has been a big change, with scheduled classes compared to regular school hours. Because normally [in Trinidad] I would wake up for training, then head to school during the day and training after. Now, with the flexible times there’s different training routines and cycles, which help with developing further.

In terms of campus life and living away from home, normally you would have your parents to help with different stuff, but now you must take the initiative for yourself.  Stuff you might’ve taken for granted like washing your own clothes [and gear], grocery runs and [preparing] food for yourself is now pretty much now a fight-or-flight battle with yourself and mentality living on your own.

Q: How would you rate the University of Tennessee? Why should other T&T athletes consider that programme?

A: The main reason I’ll motivate others to come is because I would like more ‘Trinis’ up here to feel at home and to talk our slang or even just confuse people by ‘liming’! Also, [Tennessee’s] sporting programme is amazing. You should check it out if you’re looking to further your sporting experience and career.

Q: Tell us about your Trinbago 2023 (CYG) experience…

A: It was a different atmosphere compared to the previous tournaments, such as the Pam Am Swimming Championships. In those events it’s usually just swimmers, but at these games there were multiple sporting disciplines and athletes coming together to represent our country, which was an amazing feeling. It also added a little more pressure, knowing the entire country and fans of T&T were supporting us ‘youths’, and we had to deliver on home soil.

Also from an outside perspective, people should realise that even if athletes did not medal at CYG, most of them improved their performances, such as times and distances. This should be counted as a major achievement and motivation for our young athletes to continue developing.

Q: What was it like tasting gold at the World Junior Championships?

A: This time around I was less nervous in the holding bay as it was my second time at the Championships compared to the debut experiences in 2022. With [CYG medals] came an extra confidence in me saying ‘I can win this’. Once I got in the pool, touched the wall and looked back, I realised: ‘after a year I finally did it, I am a World Junior Champion in the 50m “free”’, and brought even more recognition to Trinidad and Tobago by hearing the [national] anthem play.

Q: What’s your go-to snack or ‘pre-swim’ meal?

A: DO NOT follow my bad habits! But the first time I was up here in training, I ate a whole bag of Cheetos in front of the coaches, and they were confused that I was just having a snack. For CYG I ate some ‘Doubles’ before the 100m freestyle, which was the worst decision in my life. [So] there’s no particular go-to snack, I just keep munching all the time.

Q: Do you have a ‘pre-swim’ routine or ritual?

A: I usually just talk to people instead of sitting down quietly, because that’s when you can get trapped in your mind and overthink the race, which can even cause you to overstep or slip because of the added pressure. So, usually I just talk to whoever’s around to keep calm before races.

Q: What’s on Nikoli’s music playlist? What was the last song you listened to?

A: Kendrick Lamar is definitely on there, 21 Savage as well. The last song I listened to was ‘Runaway’ by Kanye West (at the time of the interview). A local song to get me going and boost my energy as well is ‘Hard Fete’ by Bunji Garlin.

Q: If you weren’t a swimmer, what other sport would you play?

A: Football. I would be taking a ‘sweat’ every day.

Q: What do you miss about Trinidad and Tobago the most?

A: Doubles.

Q: What’s your favourite activity when you’re not in the pool?

A: Usually, it would be sleeping, but since I’m up here it has been chilling with the guys from the swim team and just being the big kids that we are.

Q: Which local athletes do you keep track of or find inspiring?

A: For me, it has to be the ‘Big Three’: namely, Dylan Carter in the pool, Jereem Richards on the track and Nicholas Paul on the bike [cycling]. They all have been T&T’s top performers in their respective disciplines and representing our country impressively on the global stage.

 Q: Any advice for other young athletes seeking to follow your example?

A: For swimmers, keep working on dropping your time in the pool so we can build relay teams to properly represent T&T on the regional and international stages. For other younger athletes in general, keep working hard, focus on developing yourself holistically… work on self-improvement every day.