Five Gophers prepare for World University Games

The prestigious event will be held in Kazan, Russia, on July 6-17.

Minnesota's Derek Toomey swims in the men's 100-yard breaststroke during the Minnesota Challenge on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at the University Aquatic Center.

Daily File Photo, Ichigo Takikawa

Minnesota’s Derek Toomey swims in the men’s 100-yard breaststroke during the Minnesota Challenge on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, at the University Aquatic Center.

Dane Mizutani

Gophers swimmer Kyler Van Swol has used Google Translate a bit in the last few weeks.

Van Swol is trying to learn as much Russian as he can before he and four other former or current Gophers athletes leave for the World University Games, or Universiade, July 6-17 in Kazan, Russia.

“It sounds like it’s going to be pretty hard to pick up,” Van Swol said. “I don’t really know anything about it, but I’m excited.”

Van Swol will make the near 6,000-mile trek with teammate Derek Toomey, women’s athletes Erin Caflisch and Sarah McCrady, Gophers head coach Kelly Kremer and former Gophers swimmer Ashley Steenvoorden.

“This is a whole other level,” Toomey said. “It’s huge to swim in the Big Ten, and the NCAAs are a step up, but swimming for the USA is way bigger.

“I’m ecstatic to be there.”

Kremer will serve as an assistant coach for Team USA. He said it’s a major step for the program to qualify five athletes with ties to the Gophers.

“I would expect that some of our athletes will come home with medals,” Kremer said. “I don’t know what color they’ll be, but we want to come home with gold medals.”

Steenvoorden is the only one in the group who has competed with Team USA before. This will be her third stint with the team against international competition.

She will compete in the 800- and 1,500-meter freestyle races, and she hopes to place in both.

“I’m trying to get best times up there for sure, but this is my third time, and I’ve never placed in the top three of an event,” she said. “I’d love to get a medal of any kind.” 

While Steenvoorden has a bit of experience overseas, the rest of the roster is green to the bright lights of the international stage. 

It will be the first global meet for Toomey and Van Swol, and it will be Van Swol’s first time out of the country.

Toomey will compete in the 50 freestyle and the 400 freestyle relay, and Van Swol will swim the 50 and 100 butterfly and the 400 medley relay.

Toomey and Van Swol are consistent top performers on the Gophers roster, but both realize the competition in Russia will be a different beast.

Still, both men set lofty goals.

“I expect to place top three, and obviously I’m aiming to place first,” Van Swol said, adding this meet could open doors to larger meets in preparation for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. 

Toomey set a concrete time goal with hopes of breaking the 50 freestyle record. He said he tries not to focus on place goals.

“I want to break [former Gophers swimmer] Mike Richards’ 50-meter freestyle record,” Toomey said, “but I just want to get best times up there.”

Toomey’s best time with the Gophers in the 50-yard freestyle, which is about the same distance, is 19.10. Richards’ best time was 19.05.

Kremer said he expects all the athletes to return from the competition with more motivation. He added he is confident in his squad even though Steenvoorden is the only athlete with experience abroad.

Steenvoorden, the leader of the Gophers’ contingent,  said she’ll provide as much insight as she can to help the younger swimmers. That said, she admitted she’s excited to shed the rookie nameplate and ready for a little payback.

“I remember when I was a rookie, I had to go up and sing ‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga,” Steenvoorden laughed. “They all have to do rookie skits, so I’m looking forward to that.  I’ll videotape for sure.”