Renowned women’s swim coach retires

by Kent Erdahl

Minnesota’s women’s swimming and diving team has had only one coach since being recognized as a sport by the University in 1973.

Jean Freeman ended that legacy Monday when she stepped down after 31 seasons as coach of the Gophers, the athletics department announced Tuesday.

Freeman said the decision came at the right time, but she said telling her team was extremely difficult.

“I had more emotions in me being expressed than I ever even knew existed,” Freeman said. “But it’s a good time for our team for this to happen because the team dynamics are so healthy.”

In a career full of accolades and team accomplishments, including two Big Ten championships and three Big Ten coach of the year awards, Freeman is most proud of the achievements that cannot be measured.

“The highlight for me is seeing the number of alumni that are really happy with their experience,” she said.

Freeman said her love for coaching comes from a passion for learning and teaching student athletes.

“They really believe they’re going to change the world, so it’s a nice time to be associated with people,” she said. “It gives me energy.”

Coaching for a cause

Freeman is quick to point out that her love for swimming, coaching and the University goes beyond 31 years.

Swimming and diving existed as a club sport when Freeman entered as a first-year student in 1968.

“I like to say that I walked on campus in 1968 and haven’t left,” she said.

Freeman swam for the team until she was a senior in 1972. Toward the end of that season the team’s coach got sick, and it looked like Freeman’s career would end quickly.

“They were going to drop the sport,” she said. “I just thought, ‘I can do this.’ “

After acting as an assistant the following year, Freeman accepted the head coaching position when the University decided to recognize women’s athletics.

Despite the recognition Freeman still faced many challenges coaching a sport that still had no budget.

One of the first strides Freeman tried to make for the team was to get the team out of the pool located in Norris Hall and into the men’s pool located in Cooke Hall.

“There were no starting blocks, and there was only one (diving) board that had no spring,” Freeman said of the Norris Hall facility. “It was just a plank.”

Another obstacle for the young coach came when she applied to become a member of the College Swimming Coaches Association of America.

For years Freeman was told that the organization was for men only. However, she became a member and in 2000 Freeman became the first women to receive the National Collegiate and Scholastic Swimming Trophy, presented by the organization she had once fought to be a part of.

“At first I didn’t want to accept it,” Freeman said. “But then when I did, it opened so many doors for other women.”

Freeman remains dedicated to the progression of the woman’s role in college sports, but she is pleased with how far they have come.

“I guess I’m happy that people don’t know all the fights and struggles (women) had to go through because it means we’ve done our job,” Freeman said. “I guess it wasn’t so much what I did, but what I stood for.”

Looking ahead

Although Freeman is stepping down as coach, she hopes to work with the University to repair a relationship that she said has become strained over the years.

“I don’t know if it’s because athletics have become big business,” Freeman said. “But I really want to bridge that gap between faculty and athletics.”

Athletics Director Joel Maturi has asked Freeman to stay on staff at the University.

A national search will be conducted following the 2003-04 campaign to replace Freeman, but for now, former assistant Terry Nieszner has been named the interim coach.

“I would hope that Terry would get the head coach’s position,” Freeman said. “And I’m excited to help her hire an assistant.”