Senior breaks sophomore slump

by Ryan Schuster

The voice on the other side of the phone wavered for a second.
“I’m not really sure,” Gophers women’s swimmer Jessica Grass responded, searching for the right words to describe her disappointing sophomore and junior years that followed her stellar freshman season. “I’ve been trying to figure it out for the past two years,” she said.
The response is typical of Grass’ shy and modest personality. Her confidence, however, is rising quickly.
Grass had a phenomenal freshman season in which she was an All-American honorable mention selection in the 200-yard butterfly and was the Big Ten swimmer of the month in January. She also was awarded the team’s co-MVP honors, along with diver Laurie Nelson, and garnered the title of the hardest worker on the team.
What happened next is difficult to explain. Grass blames her drop-off in performance during her sophomore and junior years on herself, while coach Jean Freeman attributes it to a difficult transition from her first year to her second and third years of collegiate swimming.
“I tended to get nervous before my races,” Grass said. “I put too much pressure on myself, and I wasn’t enjoying racing.”
“The adjustment seemed a little hard for her,” Freeman said. “She was used to kind of doing what people told her to do. It works for a while as long as you have someone there enforcing that type of thing. I like to have it come from within them. She was kind of like `please yell at me, tell me what I should do.'”
Whatever the reason, Grass failed to qualify for the NCAA meet during both her sophomore and junior seasons with the Gophers. She became frustrated with swimming and it also carried over to her performance in the classroom.
All of that has changed this year, though. Grass already has two NCAA consideration times in the 200 butterfly and one in the 400 individual medley through six meets. She has six races that place her in the top 20 of the Big Ten — all in different events.
“I don’t get as nervous as I did before,” Grass said. “I’ve learned how to control it more, and I’m enjoying (swimming) more. I think that I’m back to the level that I was at.”
Grass not only looks to have recovered her old form, but also to be actually better than she was as a freshman.
“I think she basically grew up,” Freeman said. “She figured out who she was and what her goals were, rather than accepting what someone else was telling her she should do.”
Her improved performance in the pool this year has had a positive effect on her schoolwork and her self-confidence.
“Now she’s getting As and her athleticism has really hit a peak,” Freeman said. “She’s one person that I think has learned an awful lot about herself in her college years. She has more confidence than she used to, and now she will be ready to be a success after college, whereas a year ago I could not have said that.”
Despite suffering through two disappointing years at Minnesota, Grass has finally found happiness, in part because of the decision she made four years ago.
The Knoxville, Tenn., native was forced to grow up in a hurry when she decided to go to school at Minnesota, instead of staying closer to home. She was recruited by Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and several other southern colleges, but decided instead to go to a program with more higher-reaching ambitions.
“I could have gone to any school I wanted to,” Grass said. “But I knew I wanted to swim for a team that had team goals.”
Her decision has paid off. Not only has she improved in the pool and the classroom, but she has also acquired some newfound confidence.
“She never quite gives herself as much credit as everyone else who either swims with her or who watches her,” Freeman said. “She’s a very good athlete, but … it’s like everyone knows it but her. She’s just figuring it out now.”