Spencer, Steenvoorden return to swim team from Pan Am Games

The two Gophers represented the U.S. at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Betsy Helfand

For junior Haley Spencer, representing her country has been something sheâÄôs been dreaming of from a young age.

âÄúTo have your cap with the American flag on it is something that, when youâÄôre really little, in sports, you always kind of dream of,âÄù Spencer said. âÄúI know that thatâÄôs something IâÄôve wanted since I was five.âÄù

Spencer got that opportunity last week at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. Spencer, who raced Oct. 20, won a silver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke.

âÄúIt means a lot to know that I was able to be a part of the medal count for Team USA and to know that I was one of those medals,âÄù Spencer said.

Gophers teammate Ashley Steenvoorden finished eighth in the 400-meter freestyle final after placing second in her preliminary heat.

âÄúI was a little disappointed [with where I placed],âÄù Steenvoorden said. âÄúI was hoping to get a medal, but I have to look at the positives: It was my first international meet and I made the finals. I just didnâÄôt swim the way that I was capable of, but it was a learning experience.âÄù

Spencer and Steenvoorden were joined at the Pan Am Games by Minnesota head menâÄôs and womenâÄôs coach Kelly Kremer, who served as an assistant coach for Team USA.

Both said that having Kremer there was extremely helpful.

âÄúI knew no matter what coach was there, whether Kelly was selected to go or not, that IâÄôd be in good hands,âÄù Steenvoorden said. âÄúBut to have your own coach who knows how you swim races and what you need at big moments and knows what to say definitely gave me a bit of an advantage, especially in my first international meet.âÄù

Spencer said that Kremer told both her and Steenvoorden that, âÄúNo matter the outcome, he was extremely proud of us.âÄù

The Pan Am Games was the first international meet for both Spencer and Steenvoorden, who both qualified for the competition after their performances in the ConocoPhillips National Championships in August.

They both said they believed having each other there enhanced their experiences.

âÄúItâÄôs great to go meet new people, but itâÄôs even better that you have someone you know to share the experience with,âÄù Spencer said.

The international stage provided Steenvoorden and Spencer with a new experience.

âÄúI did have a little bit of nerves but mainly just excitement,âÄù Steenvoorden said. âÄúThe Mexican crowd was unlike anything that IâÄôve ever experienced at a swimming venue before.âÄù

The enthusiastic nature of the crowd was not lost on Spencer, either.

âÄúI have never seen a crowd so proud of their country and so loud, willing to stand up and cheer no matter what was happening,âÄù Spencer said.

Steenvoorden also added that she was approached by autograph seekers, and that people wanted to take pictures with her âÄî two things she was not expecting.

With the 2012 London Olympic Games approaching, Spencer and Steenvoorden will be preparing for the Olympic Team Trials that take place in late June.

Steenvoorden said that swimmers on the team who had competed in the Olympics before gave helpful advice.

âÄúI learned a lot about how to approach races or just how to get through these long trips; they were great role models,âÄù she said.

Former Gophers swimmer Christine Jennings also competed at the Games. She won a bronze medal in the 10-kilometer open water race.

Steenvoorden and Spencer will now turn their attention back to the Minnesota swimming team in preparation for the Minnesota Grand Prix on Nov. 11-13 at the University Aquatic Center.