Freeman as excited as ever about 28-year romance with U swimming

Ryan Schuster

She is always animated as she runs around, waving her arms enthusiastically and shouting out instructions to her swimmers along the edge of the University Aquatic Center pool.
After 28 years in the Gophers women’s swimming program, Jean Freeman has become a permanent fixture with the team. She has helped build Minnesota swimming from obscurity to one of the most respected teams in the nation.
Freeman, 46, got involved with the swimming program at Minnesota for the first time as a freshman in 1968. Little did anyone know that she would go on to become one of the most respected women’s swimming coaches in the country.
“People didn’t know we existed,” Freeman said. “When I came to Minnesota, I had no idea there was a women’s swimming team. I just saw a sign on a post in Dinkytown that said, ‘Anyone interested in swimming?'”
Freeman swam in the first Big Ten women’s swim meet in 1972, which was also the conference championship meet.
She started student coaching during her senior year because the coach at the time, Marjorie Cowmeadow, got sick with pneumonia midway through the 1972-73 season. The next year Freeman served as an assistant under Allyn Peterson, who left the team after only one year at the helm, giving Freeman full control in 1973-74.
Over 23 years and 159 dual meet victories later, Freeman’s team is undefeated on the season at 8-0 (6-0 in dual meets) and ranked 10th in the nation.
During Freeman’s reign as head coach, Minnesota has compiled a .957 winning percentage in dual meet competitions. She has had a winning record in 21 of 23 years and has won the Big Ten Coach of the Year award three times.
In addition to her team’s success, she is also highly regarded by her swimmers and their parents.
“She has an excellent reputation with coaches in the state and parents really trust sending their daughter to her,” said Cowmeadow, the woman Freeman replaced a quarter century ago. “She has the best interest of the swimmers at heart, and I think that both the swimmers and the parents know that.”
“She gives opportunities to people who wouldn’t be able to swim other places,” senior swimmer Jessica Grass said. “She’s very supportive. No matter what, she’ll always be there.”
Freeman has gone through six different athletics directors during her coaching tenure, and has the longest current coaching tenure in the women’s athletics department.
“Things are really different,” Freeman said. “Coaching just took time away on weekends and you certainly didn’t get any financial benefit from it. The first year I coached, I got nothing and then at the end of the year they said, ‘Hey there’s some money here would you like it?’ It was $50, and I was thrilled to get it.”
Freeman has also seen a change in the talent of the athletes she is coaching.
“Everything’s changed,” Freeman said. “The athletes coming in now are so much more prepared. We actually had people who had never been on a swim team before. I recruited my roommates.”
In 1974, Minnesota started giving out partial scholarships to women’s swimmers based on financial need. Then the program made it’s biggest leap, moving from it’s home pool underneath Norris Hall into Cooke Hall.
Even though Cooke’s pool didn’t have any lane dividers or starting blocks, the move signified the coming of age of the sport at Minnesota. Before the move, women were not allowed inside Cooke Hall during the day and could not swim in the pool. Six years ago, Minnesota moved across the sidewalk to it’s current home at the Aquatic Center.
To Freeman, however, the strides that the program has made during her coaching career are not as important as the impact she has made on her swimmers’ lives, helping them achieve their goals in swimming and in life.
“It’s very rewarding to watch someone come in as a freshman and hear them say that they want to be a doctor or whatever and then actually see them 10 or 20 years later and that’s what they are doing,” Freeman said.
Freeman began swimming when she was only eight and coaching at age 16. The Minneapolis native was inducted into the Minnesota Swimming Hall of Fame in 1992.
Despite her hard work as a coach, she realizes that some goals may be out of her reach.
“I would love to win the Big Ten and have a team that’s (No. 1 in the nation), but to be honest I’m not willing to do the sacrifice of what it would take. It’s all in the area of recruiting.
“In my mind, what one would need to do here in Minnesota to overcome the obstacle of the cold weather would be to spend many hours on the road. I’m not willing to pay the price for that.”
After more than 23 years coaching, Freeman doesn’t see an end to her career anytime soon.
“I’m extremely happy here,” Freeman said. “When I was younger I said, ‘I’m going to do this until I’m 50.’ I have no idea how long I will be doing it, but I have no plans to stop.”