Women’s swim team is on verge of greatness

Jean Freeman has transformed the Gophers women’s swimming and diving team from relative obscurity to the verge of national prominence in her 24 years as coach. But her most intriguing and possibly most successful season may be yet to come.
Since Freeman took the helm in 1973, the Gophers have only failed to place among the top five teams in the Big Ten six times. Minnesota has finished in the top three 12 times during the same span. The team also moved from its tiny swimming facility in Cooke Hall into the spacious new state-of-the-art University Aquatic Center.
But while the Gophers have remained one of the most respected and consistent college swimming programs, the team has never been able to become one of the nation’s elite. The Gophers have not managed to stop Michigan from winning 11 straight Big Ten titles, and they have only placed in the top 10 once at the NCAA championships in school history.
All of that is beginning to change, though.
The Gophers’ talented new 14-member recruiting class, along with their strong returning roster, will help vault the program onto the national scene. With a strong mix of experienced veterans and talented newcomers, the team will make the jump from being a good, but not spectacular team, to being among the nation’s top 10 programs in the next three years. The question is not whether Minnesota will improve but how fast the team will mold together.
Although the Gophers will lose the experience of their departing senior class, they will more than make up for it with their talented new recruiting class.
“This is our best recruiting class ever,” Freeman said in a written statement May 14. “Many of the times already accomplished by these student-athletes would earn points at the Big Ten championship.”
Highlighting next year’s freshman class will be Andrea Simakova, a native of the Czech Republic. She spent both winter and spring quarters practicing with the Gophers and preparing for next season. Simakova transferred to Minnesota from a college in the Czech Republic in January but was ruled academically ineligible to compete last year.
Simakova is a member of the Czech Republic national team and has already swam times this spring that would have scored points at last year’s NCAA meet.
Burnsville native Katy Christoferson and Jennifer Delong from Winston-Salem, N.C., have both recorded faster times in the 200- and 400-yard individual medley in high school than any Gophers swimmers did all of last year. Apple Valley native Meghan Sonstegaard is also expected to step in right away and make an immediate impact on the 200 and 400 freestyle relays.
After finishing in the top 25 at the NCAA championships the last seven years, Minnesota has started to attract some of the top national and local recruits. The Gophers’ new recruiting class includes swimmers from two countries and six different states, as well as seven in-state recruits.
“I think that we have reached a new level,” Freeman said. “When that happens, a different level of swimmer looks at your program.”
Gophers junior swimmer Gretchen Hegener gave the team even more national publicity by setting a new American record in the 100 breaststroke at the NCAAs on March 21 in Indianapolis. Hegener and the rest of the Gophers team will be honored at Gov. Arne Carlson’s mansion tonight with a dinner in Hegener’s honor.
Hegener, along with fellow juniors Olga Splichalova and Kim Wilson and freshman Jenny Hennen, should continue to make major contributions next season. The continued improvement of junior Shona Baillie, sophomore Beth Shimanski, freshmen Terri Jashinsky and Amy Cottrill and the maturation of the team’s new recruits will serve to further strengthen the Gophers’ rise to national prominence.
Although continued exposure and improvement are imminent for the team, the Gophers will have to wait until next year to see if their top two goals — winning the Big Ten for the first time ever and again placing among the top 10 teams at the NCAA meet — will be realized sooner or later.