Nick Vance touched the wall in three minutes, 48 seconds — an exhilarating time for the 400 individual medley.
“Wow, that’s great,” Vance thought. “A best time with everything going on in my life.”
When Vance says “everything” it is difficult to imagine the focus necessary to achieve at a high level in the pool. His mom, Anne Mason, was across the country in California in the middle of chemo treatment for a cancerous lymph node in her neck (on her carotid artery). With a heavy heart but cheered on by teammates, Vance’s swim in the preliminaries pushed him even closer to his goal of shattering Florida State’s school record as he prepared for the final of the Georgia Invite in mid-November.
Before the 400 IM final that night, Vance discussed strategy with FSU associate head coach Dan Kesler about “how I was going to pace the race.”
“It ended up being a great change,” said Vance, a sophomore. “The butterfly and backstroke, which are the strokes that go first, are my better strokes. I made sure to really focus on that breaststroke, which is the third leg of the IM. And I ended up passing people on that stroke. When I touched the wall, I knew I got the record. I had the record in my mind ever since I came here last year.
“I definitely had my mom in my thoughts during that 400 IM. I’m doing it for myself but I was also really doing it for her just because I know how hard she’s fighting.”
Athletes discuss seeking a level of focus but how could he not swim without thoughts of his mom at that moment? Vance had a school record in the 400 IM in 3:45.50, an impressive time and in a taxing event that demands physical exertion in four strokes.
“With the 400 IM, there’s nowhere to hide,” FSU coach Neal Studd said. “You better be good at everything. Even the weak stroke needs to be pretty solid.”
Vance spent a lot of time in the pool that day. With his thoughts thousands of miles away, he pushed forward in the best swim of his career while his mom was battling for her life.
‘I was the gift’
Anne Mason fought cancer three years earlier but was diagnosed with a recurrence on Oct. 2, 2020. Her surgeon gave Anne the stunning news and the family tried to grasp the words “nine months to 12 months” to live.
“The conventional treatment that was recommended for me was surgery,” Mason said. “And it was going to be a life-altering surgery that I might not survive. And if I did, my life would be severely impacted. So we opted not to do that. It was a scary choice.”
The family talked and opted for an unconventional option. On Oct. 26, Mason flew from their home, near Atlanta, to California for treatment. She began six low-dose chemo treatments that were helped by the use of insulin and was prescribed a different IV bag each day dripping medicine into her body. But at some point between her second and fourth week of treatment, Mason was cancer-free.
She came home on Dec. 20, recovering but also enjoying the holidays with her family.
“We had a super low-key Christmas,” Mason said. “We just did a no-present Christmas. And I was the gift.”
Vance picked FSU for a variety of reasons, from the coaches to visits to Tallahassee to his ability to pursue his interest in psychology. He knew FSU was the right fit as a recruit. But it was further reinforced as he received support from his teammates. When Vance’s mom was at her worst, he would go to the pool for a meet.
Teammates produced hand-made posters and even held them up for the video cameras so Mason could see them during web streams. Not just when Vance raced but the entire meet (he also swam against TCU on Nov. 14).
“It really showed me how great this team is,” Vance said. “I’m just so thankful for each and every person on our team and the coaching staff and at Florida State that has made this great of an environment be possible. I think it’s truly special.”
Studd described Vance as “lovable” but says the respect and admiration are mutual.
“He’s an incredible teammate,” Studd said. “He needs to know he has the support of everybody and that it’s a family. That’s really important. I think that’s one of the reasons why he is doing so well. He’s happy. He knows everybody here is pulling for him.”
Driven to fulfil dreams
Vance also picked FSU because he felt Studd and the coaching staff would help his development in the pool. Among Vance’s goals are to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team.
“He really believed in me, and that really motivated me,” Vance said. “And I’m still looking forward to hopefully making that team soon.”
As he continues toward that goal, Vance will swim in the 400 IM on Friday as well as the 200 backstroke and 200 butterfly on Saturday at the ACC men’s swimming and diving championships in Greensboro, N.C.
“That’s kind of a tough double,” Studd said. “They’re just really good events for him and he’s super fit.”
Vance said his best event in high school was the 200 backstroke, with his weakest being the freestyle. But years of practice, video review and refining technique have helped him make progress with each stroke.
“I really have to work on every single stroke and practice a lot,” Vance said. “Me and my group coach, Dan Kesler, we will talk before practice of what kind of stroke do we want to work on today. So that we make sure I’m getting enough of everything. And sometimes I do need to stay after practice to work on some technical things, video review, all those sorts of things with all the various strokes, because with the 400 IM, you have to be strong at each stroke.”
In a Zoom conversation between Vance and Mason, mom smiles often. Seeing her son be successful in the classroom — she notes he had a 4.0 GPA in the fall while she was in cancer treatment — and in the pool has reinforced the motivation and dedication he has to being a student and athlete.
“He’s just phenomenal,” Mason said. “What these athletes do, not just swimmers, but collegiate athletes, their schedules are insane. And to keep the foot on the gas during COVID takes a special kind of person.”
While going through treatment, Mason said she was worried about her family. But seeing the posters and receiving texts and other messages, even on her toughest days, was therapeutic. And knowing teammates were there to provide a strong foundation for Vance gave her relief.
“I’ve been supported by the whole team,” Vance said. “Every single day, just people checking up on me, people caring about me, people making sure I’m all good. And wishing my mom well.”