Ending bittersweet for U women’s swimmers

Tim Nichols

The giant pool party called the NCAA women’s swimming and diving national championships was the final send-off for three of Minnesota’s top swimmers — Olga Splichalova, Kim Wilson, and Gretchen Hegener.
Combined, the trio has 13 Big Ten individual titles in its four years at Minnesota. Hegener alone owns eight of those titles and also leaves as the only women’s swimmer in Minnesota history to own an NCAA title.
But their prestigious careers came to a bittersweet halt at this year’s championships, held March 19-21 at the University Aquatic Center. Wilson and Splichalova finished 13th and 21st, respectively, in the 1650-yard freestyle — their trademark event.
Wilson was relatively pleased with her performance.
“I’m happy I did my best. I feel that I raced really well,” Wilson said.
In hindsight, she raced about the same in this event as she did in last year’s championships. In 1997, she finished in the same place and her time was .34 seconds faster.
Splichalova, who is retiring after this season, finished a disappointing 21st. She has placed as high as fifth and sixth in past championships, but a nagging shoulder injury she has been fighting for two years no doubt played a role in her sub-par performance. Her slow time capped off what was a solid career.
The Czech Republic native and two-time Olympian finishes as the only Gophers women’s swimmer who competed in the Olympics while attending school.
One swimmer who was not under as much physical pressure, but instead faced heavy psychological and emotional stress, was Hegener. She finished a distant seventh in her money event, the 100-yard breaststroke. Kristy Kowal of Georgia broke the American record with a time of 59.05 seconds. Hegener had previously broken the record in last year’s championships.
During the introductions to the race, Hegener received an ear-piercing cheer that rocked the Aquatic Center. Hegener could not contain her giggles and nervous smiling before the race.
“It’s a tough balance to get with Gretchen because she usually does her best when she’s not too serious,” head coach Jean Freeman said. “As soon as I heard where we couldn’t shut up the crowd there for a while, I thought, That’s great, but oh my God.’ All I could think of was Gretchen’s quads just tightening up.”
The electricity of the fans was not the only factor that played into Hegener’s performance.
“There’s a lot of pressure I feel. A lot of people expected me to repeat again and set the American record again,” Hegener said. “Of course that was one of my goals, but I swam as hard as I could.”
Columbia’s swimmer sweeps
The media darling and Miss Congeniality of the championships was Cristina Teuscher of the Ivy League’s Columbia University.
Teuscher won the 500-yard freestyle with a time of 4:40.10, the second-fastest American time ever, and also took the 400-yard individual medley title. Her victories made her the first woman Ivy Leaguer to become a national swimming champion. She was a little surprised with the significance of her accomplishments.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before,” Teuscher said. “It’s good because I think it’s putting our league out there, promoting our league and getting more swimmers to come here.”

Top 16 Gophers finishers
Gretchen Hegener: seventh, 100-yard breaststroke; fourth, 200-yard breaststroke.
Jenny Hennen: 13th, 100-yard butterfly.
Kim Wilson: 13th, 1650-yard freestyle.
400-yard medley relay team: 11th.
200-yard medley relay team: 10th.
800-yard freestyle relay team: 15th.