There is a very noticeable void that fills the chlorine-filled air of the University’s Aquatic Center.
Something is clearly missing from the right side of the wall at the far end of the building. The left side is adorned with three maroon banners bearing the dates 1922, 1926 and 1996 and the words “Men’s Big Ten Champions”.
The other side is blank, signifying the number of times that the women’s swimming and diving team has won the Big Ten title in their 20 seasons in the conference.
Minnesota finished third at last year’s conference championships, behind champion Michigan and runner-up Wisconsin. The team’s top three showing at the Big Tens marked the sixth time during the Wolverine’s decade-long rein over the conference that the Gophers were second or third to Michigan.
Although coach Jean Freeman is optimistic about the team’s chances this year, she remains guarded about the its prospects this season in the Big Ten.
“Michigan is pretty much sewn in to win it,” Freeman said. “We’re going for the second spot in the Big Ten. We know we’re better; we just don’t know how much better the other teams are.”
The Gophers have indeed improved since last year.
Minnesota returns 15 athletes from the 1995-96 team that placed 15th at the NCAA Championships. In addition, seven swimmers on the squad have earned All-America honors during the past three years.
Another measure of the team’s potential was demonstrated last weekend as the Gophers set 10 new meet records during their annual intrasquad scrimmage.
Senior Jessica Grass led the way for Minnesota, setting a meet record in the 200-yard butterfly with a time of 2:04.4. She also won the 500 freestyle in 5:06.98. The Knoxville, Tenn., native looks to have recovered well from her disappointing sophomore and junior seasons. She was an honorable mention All-American her freshman year in the 200 butterfly before struggling the past two years.
“I think she’s better than her old form,” Freeman said. “Her whole focus before was that she was just a swimmer. She is a more balanced swimmer and can put it in perspective now.”
Jenny Hennen, a highly-touted freshman from Anoka High School also shined in her collegiate swimming debut. Hennen was all-America six times in the 100 butterfly and 100 and 200 freestyle events in high school. At the intrasquad, she set meet records in the 100 and 200 freestyle.
Junior Olga Splichalova set a meet record at the intrasquad in the 1,000 freestyle event. The native of the Czech Republic has competed in the last two summer Olympics for her country. This summer in Atlanta, she took eighth in the 800-meter freestyle, and 15th in the 400 freestyle and as a member of the 4×200 relay team. In 1992 in Barcelona, Splichalova took sixth place in the 800-meter freestyle.
“Her work ethic is phenomenal,” Freeman said. “She just cranks it out every day. She will race against anyone, even herself or the clock.”
Another international student who had an outstanding performance at the team’s intrasquad meet was senior Tanya Schuh.
A dual citizen in both the United States and Brazil, Schuh broke her own meet record in the 100-yard butterfly with a time of 56.50. She also was a member of both the 200 medley relay and 400 freestyle relay teams. Schuh is a member of the Brazilian National Team and has competed with them in several international meets.
Other top performers last weekend for the Gophers were Gretchen Hegener, Andrea Berg, Beth Shimanski, Terri Jashinsky, Carrie Hansen, Amy Cottril, Marta Knowles, Devon Coellner and Kate McMillan.
Minnesota is ranked 15th in an NCAA preseason swimming and diving poll of Division I schools. That ranking will be tested early this season as the Gophers face four teams ranked in the top 23 of that poll during the first four weeks of the season.
The team’s difficult schedule will start this weekend at No. 16 North Carolina. Minnesota will travel to Chapel Hill for the Tar Heel Invitational on Friday. The Gophers will also compete in a dual meet with Carolina on Saturday.
“We’re really looking forward to being able to race these people,” Freeman said. “We’d really love to beat them, but our best athletes are going to be challenged considerably.”
Minnesota will also face an enormous challenge this season during conference play from 10-time defending Big Ten champion Michigan.
But if the Gophers keep improving this season, they may have a realistic shot at putting up a banner of their own at the Aquatic Center.