Gophers women’s swimmer Gretchen Hegener has a knack for dramatic finishes.
At this year’s Big Ten Championships, she won the 100-yard breaststroke by a scant .04 seconds. Last year, at the NCAA Championships, she won the 100-yard breaststroke by .06 seconds.
“It was extremely close,” Minnesota women’s swimming coach Jean Freeman said. “I seriously didn’t know she’d won until I looked at the scoreboard.”
The NCAA victory wasn’t just the first national championship for Hegener, but for any Minnesota swimmer as well. In addition to that, she established a new American record in the event. Given these facts, one might think Hegener would be favored to repeat her victory this year. But one small detail is in the way.
Last year’s second-place NCAA finisher, Kristy Kowal, beat Hegener’s American record time of 1:00.32 by a tenth of a second in December. The University of Georgia Swimmer beat her own record a few weeks ago, with a scalding time of 1:00.04. Her coaches expect her to go into uncharted waters at the NCAAs.
“We hope she swims 59-something,” Georgia assistant coach Will Cobb said.
Although it would be easy for Hegener to stare at split-times from other swimmers, she’s going into her final NCAA meet, held March 19-21 at the University Aquatic Center, with a strong attitude.
“I can’t concentrate on Kristy,” Hegener said. “I’ve learned not to look at what other people are doing and focus on myself.”
Before Hegener came to the Gophers, there were already indications that she could dominate her events. In her time at Mayer Lutheran High School in Cologne, Minn., she set every swimming record at her school. All but one of those records stand today.
“They’re not really known for their swim team,” Hegener noted.
Hegener may not be very impressed by that record, but her records at Minnesota underline the truth. She is a talented swimmer who has school records in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard breaststroke, as well as the 200- and 400-yard medley relay team records. She also holds the Big Ten records in both the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke, as well as the relay events.
As a senior captain, her leadership comes in a more vocal package than it once did. The team leader in cheers enjoys nearly everything about being on the team.
“I like to try and get along with everyone on the team,” Hegener said. “I try to make people laugh and relax before their race.”
Hegener is expected to have a top-three finish in the 100, and she expects the same from her 200. At last year’s NCAA Championships, she swam almost two seconds slower than her school record. Part of that was because of the increased pressure on her (after winning the 100), and in part, she admits, because she didn’t know how to swim the 200 at the championships last year.
This year, she is all too aware of what she has to do. Last year, she didn’t know how close to the American record she was, but it’s clear now that she’s going to have to swim faster than ever before.
All of that means this year’s 100-yard final should be exciting, especially if she holds true to form in championships. Her talent for finishing just ahead of the competition, and the depth of this year’s field should create one of the most anticipated races at this year’s championships.
“The breaststroke is a very talented event,” Freeman said. “There are two American record holders racing, and that doesn’t happen in any other event.”
As for the 200-yard breaststroke, the situation looks good for Hegener. Only one time in all her NCAA races did she fail to improve on a result, when she tied her previous year’s placement. She will also be competing in the 200-yard medley relay, and perhaps two other relays, pending the NCAA’s announcement Thursday of competitors who did not have automatic qualifying times.
And there is one more incentive to finish strong. Hegener’s eyes widened when asked about the prospect of swimming at home in the NCAA Championships.
“This is the best way I could ever think of to finish my career, with all my friends, family, and teammates cheering for me,” she said.