Gophers women’s swimming coach Jean Freeman’s words about her team’s performance at the NCAA championships summed up the story of the meet. She was clearly pleased, but the occasional cracking of her voice and loss of her train of thought told another tale.
When asked for an adjective to describe the three-day NCAA meet, Freeman responded by simply saying, “long,” followed by a tired laugh.
Minnesota’s women’s swimming and diving team fought its way through fatigue to make a strong finish at the national meet over spring break. The No. 8 Gophers concluded their five-month season by placing 13th at the NCAAs on Mar. 20-22 in Indianapolis. Southern California won the meet with a total of 406 points; Stanford was second, scoring 395 points and was followed by Southern Methodist, with 353.5.
Minnesota went into the meet with hopes of finishing in the top 10, and was actually eighth at one time during the meet. But the Gophers couldn’t hold on during the last day of competition. Minnesota was in 10th place going into the last two events but slipped three places in the standings because the team didn’t have anyone competing in the final two races.
“At first we were doing really well,” junior swimmer Olga Splichalova said. “After the first two days we were hoping to make the top eight. Then, the last day, we lost the relay.”
The 400-yard freestyle relay, the team’s last event of the NCAAs, failed to score by placing 17th. The team of Splichalova, Jenny Hennen, Amy Cottrill and Terri Jashinsky finished just .27 seconds away from qualifying for the consolation finals. Places one through eight score points in the championship finals and nine-16 score in the consolations.
The Gophers only tallied 17 points in two events on the last day of the meet after scoring 100.5 during the first two days. Minnesota’s lack of scoring at the end was because of having fewer strong events on the final day and the exhaustion of the three-day meet.
“Everybody, by the last day, was really tired,” junior Gretchen Hegener said. “There’s so many swims and only so many days that you can have energy for.”
Minnesota arrived in Indianapolis on Mar. 18, practiced at the Indiana Natatorium and then competed for three days before returning home on Mar. 23. By the last day of the meet, the team started to show signs that its difficult schedule and having the NCAAs during finals week was getting to them.
“They ran out of gas a little bit,” Freeman said.
Even though she did not compete during the meet, Freeman had just as tiring of a week. After the conclusion of the NCAAs, she was forced to take a later flight back to Minneapolis than the rest of the team because the NCAA booked them separately. As a result, it took her 12 hours to get home.
Despite the arduous circumstances of the meet, Minnesota improved two spots from its 15th-place showing a year ago and had its highest finish at nationals since 1992. The Gophers also tied the team record for most points at the NCAAs set in 1992. Minnesota scored 117.5 points at the meet.
“My personal goal for the team at the beginning of the year was to be in the top 12, but I was extremely pleased with the team’s performance,” Freeman said. “This is the best season we’ve ever had.”
The Gophers finished the regular season undefeated for only the third time ever at 15-0 and tied the school record for the most dual meet victories in a season (13) set during the 1990-91 season.
All of the team’s 11 competitors at NCAAs scored points for Minnesota, helping the Gophers to their fifth top 20 finish in the last seven years.
Hegener led the way for Minnesota. She garnered All-America honors in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke and on the 200 and 400 medley relay teams. She was also named honorable mention All-America as a member of the 200 freestyle relay team.
The school record-holder in the 100 and 200 breaststroke became the Gophers’ first NCAA champion in the 27-year history of the program by placing first in the 100 breaststroke in a time of 1:00.32 seconds. In the process, she also became an American record holder in the event.
Splichalova, a two-time Olympian and a member of the Czech Republic national team, set a new school record in the 500 freestyle. She placed eighth in 4:50.45, earning All-America honors. During the preliminaries, her time of 4:47.02 bettered the old mark set by herself a month ago at the Big Ten championships.
Other individuals who were named honorable mention All-America were divers Andrea Berg (3-meter) and Carrie Hansen (1-meter) and swimmers Tanya Schuh (100 butterfly) and Kim Wilson (1,650 freestyle). The Gophers’ 200 and 400 medley relay squads earned All-America status, while the 200 and 400 freestyle relays were honorable mention All-America.
Even though the Gophers had hoped to finish higher at the NCAAs, they remained upbeat about their performance.
“I don’t think it was disappointing at all,” Hegener said. “We were all really excited about how we did.”