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SWIMMING STAR: Gastonia’s Niemeyer was an international standout while at N.C. State and still remains active in the community

By Richard Walker

When Chuck Niemeyer’s swimming career began in Gastonia in the mid-1970s, he had no idea the sport would last as long as it has for him – or land him in his hometown Hall of Fame.

But Niemeyer’s determination, talent and work ethic drove him to excellence in high school, collegiately, in national competition and currently as a 55-year-old masters competitor and he’s part of the 2023 Gaston County Sports Hall of Fame induction class.

Chuck Niemeyer during his college swimming career at N.C. State.

And his current job as a physician assistant has given even more life experiences as it has taken him to many sporting events and even overseas in the service of the United States military.

Given what he’s been exposed to in his life, Niemeyer compares himself to an award-winning fictional movie character portrayed by Tom Hanks.

“I feel like I’m a lot like Forrest Gump,” Niemeyer said of the 1994 comedy-drama in which Gump leaves his rural Alabama upbringing to travel the world and be involved with historic events in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. “You know, I’ve been blessed to have a lot of amazing live experiences through my swimming career, having been in the military and seen an awful lot of stuff.”

Niemeyer’s “Gump” moments happened in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s as he was an honored swimmer at Ashbrook High School, N.C. State University and for his country’s U.S. Swimming team and been involved in sports medicine as a physician assistant in Atlanta, Greenville, N.C., and Gastonia in addition to being deployed to Kuwait and Iraq for the U.S. Naval Reserve Service Corps.

Well travelled in his youth since his father Charles had worked for the Air Force, Niemeyer arrived in Gastonia in 1974 and soon began participating in the sport for which he is known.

He first began swimming at 8 for the Gastonia summer league at Southampton Racquet Club, trained at the Gastonia YMCA under 2021 GCSHOF inductee Charlotte Whitesides and competed for the Gaston Gators swim team.

After shining as a freshman at Ashbrook High School, his talents took him to Charlotte’s Johnston Memorial YMCA where he was coached by the legendary Franke Bell – a 2022 American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) Hall of Fame inductee.

With his skill level improving all the time, Niemeyer was a recruited walkon for another legendary coach at N.C. State.

Chuck Niemeyer (2nd from right) with his N.C. State coach Don Easterling (middle) and other 1980s standout Wolfpack swimmers.

Don Easterling is one of the winningest coaches in N.C. State history – he’s a 2016 inductee of the Wolfpack Athletic Hall of Fame – and one of the winningest coaches in ACC history. In his 23 seasons as N.C. State swim coach, his teams won 17 ACC titles (15 men, 2 women), had a career record of 328-118 and coached 40 All-Americans and seven future Olympians.

One of Easterling’s swimmers, Bruce Stein, also swam for Bell. And Stein’s recommendation led Easterling to offer Niemeyer a roster spot as a walkon after he graduated from Ashbrook in 1985.

“At State, I was a terrified freshman,” Niemeyer said. “At Ashbrook, my mom (Carolyn) was the coach. I would say the coaches that recruited me thought of me as a diamond in the rough. But I had a lot of drive.
“Easterling was a coach a lot of people either loved or hated. A lot of people didn’t like him. But he motivated me. He was a blood and guts coach who had ACC championships and was very feared.”

After earning All-ACC honors as a freshman in 1986, Easterling awarded Niemeyer some scholarship money. He also grew to respect Niemeyer as one of his top swimmers in his storied coaching history.

“I’ve coached two Olympic gold medalists and one Olympic silver medalist in the butterfly (stroke),” Easterling once told the media. “And I feel qualified to compare Chuck Niemeyer to the Olympic medalists.”

At N.C. State, Niemeyer was a four-time All-ACC selection, a two-time ACC 100-yard butterfly and 400-yard medley relay champion and a two-time team captain.

“Easterling was a master of stroke technique, which was good for me,” Niemeyer said. “I was fortunate enough to do pretty well in the ACC Championships I competed in.”

His excellence in the butterfly stroke also earned him a chance at international glory and famous Team USA teammates like Gastonia native Melvin Stewart; Niemeyer qualified and competed in the Pan American swimming trials in 1987 and 1988 and for the 1988 U.S. Olympic team trials.

Niemeyer’s first brush with Team USA came when he qualified for a regional competition in Tuscaloosa, Ala., during the summer of 1984.

“That was the year the Alabama coach Don Gambril was the coach of the Olympic team,” Niemeyer said of Gambril, who was a U.S. Olympic assistant coach in 1968, 1972, 1976 and 1980, head coach in 1984 and a 1990 International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee. “When I went down there and won the 100-meter butterfly, I started thinking, ‘Maybe I should have higher aspirations.'”

A 1989 N.C. State graduate in zoology, Niemeyer went on to get his Master’s from Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

He met his wife, the former Bridget Branch of Greenville, N.C., in Durham anda they are the parents of two sons who attended Ashbrook – 26-year-old John and 21-year-old William.

In 2000, he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve Medical Service Corps.

In 2004, he returned to Gastonia and joined an orthopaedic practice with his father while also being involved in several community projects. They have ranged from performing annual physical examinations for Gaston County Schools and Gaston College athletes to providing medical service for Ashbrook High home football games to announcing Ashbrook High soccer games to serving as a medical liaison for the Gastonia City Police SWAT team to being a past board chair at Gastonia’s Schiele Museum.

He’s also involved in helping getting a Gaston Aquatics swimming facility built in Dallas, N.C., just a few hundred yards east of the Gaston College campus.

“You know, we moved back to Gastonia because we wanted to participate in the community because we believe in the community,” Niemeyer said. “I’m not the type of person who can sit around and dwell here. I’ve got to be involved.”

That includes his career as a senior swimmer – in 2016 qualified for the National Masters Swimming championships in Greensboro.

“Swimmers are so competitive and it’s also fun,” Niemeyer said. “I’m 55 now and sometimes I’m swimming in a lane beside somebody who’s 30. But I’m still trying to beat that 30-year-old.
“We have a bunch of professionals – school teachers, doctors, lawyers – but when you’re in the pool, you’re all the same.”