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32 Gophers swimmers vie for Olympic berth

David Plummer advanced Tuesday to the final in the 100-meter backstroke, but Haley Spencer and Ashley Steenvoorden fell short.
Haley Spencer swims during practice Friday at the Aquatic Center. Spencer is competing in the 100 and 200 meter great stokes at the U.S. Olympic trials.
Image by Marisa Wojcik
Haley Spencer swims during practice Friday at the Aquatic Center. Spencer is competing in the 100 and 200 meter great stokes at the U.S. Olympic trials.

Minnesota is well represented at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb.

Thirty-two current, former and future Gophers swimmers will compete June 25 to July 2 for a spot on the Olympic team.

The highest hopes for Minnesota hang on three swimmers with three different strokes — all with national team experience.

For the men, 2008 graduate David Plummer will focus on punching his ticket to London in just one event: the 100-meter backstroke.

Plummer finished second in the 100 semifinal Tuesday. With a top-two finish in Wednesday’s final, he’ll be an Olympian.

Plummer has enjoyed a lot of recent success in both the 50 and 100 backstrokes. He was fifth in both events at last year’s World Aquatics Championships and won gold in the 4×100 medley relay. He also won the 2010 U.S. national championship in the 100 backstroke.

“At this point, I’ve had a lot of experience nationally and internationally,” Plummer said. “The pressure is on me to perform, and it’s not about anyone else.”

At the last Olympic trials in 2008, Plummer finished seventh in the 100 backstroke.

His qualification seems likely if his seed time is any indication. Plummer’s time of 53.04 seconds was good enough to earn a second seed, and it is faster than former Olympians Matt Grevers and Ryan Lochte.

The Oklahoma native chose to train for trials the past few years in Minnesota, where he spent his college career. His coach Ben Bartell swam in the same Gophers’ era as Plummer’s older brother. Many of his college friends still live in the area, Plummer said. Former Gophers swimmer Russell Payne will also compete in Plummer’s event.

“I have numerous Minnesota connections that I really enjoy,” Plummer said.

With his relationship to the Minnesota swimming community, Plummer said he isn’t surprised by the number of swimmers competing with ties to the University.

“I think it’s because we have such a great program, with the facility and the coaches we have in place,” Plummer said. “We’ve had great swimmers in the past, we have great swimmers now, and we will continue to have them in the future.”

Other former men’s team swimmers are Michael Richards and Alex Wold. Wold swam Monday in the 400 individual medley and placed ninth, just one spot from making the final.

Current Gophers swimmers and recent graduates racing for spots on the Olympic team include Jared Anderson, Zach Bolin, Josh Hall, Matt Papenfuss, CJ Smith, Derek Toomey, Kyler Van Swol and Mike Vernoia.

Luke Bushman, a transfer from Penn State who will be eligible with the Gophers in 2013, is also competing.

Several other future Gophers swimmers are making Olympic trials appearances — Ben Bravence, Ryan Miksch and Logan Redondo.

Spencer, Steenvoorden lead women

The women’s team will pin its chances on Haley Spencer and Ashley Steenvoorden. The two swimmers are competing in the 200 and 100 breaststrokes and 200, 400 and 800 freestyles, respectively.

Spencer finished 14th in the 100 breaststroke semifinal Tuesday and missed the final.

Steenvoorden missed the cut for the 400 freestyle final by two spots after competing in Tuesday’s preliminary race.

At last year’s U.S. national championships, Spencer was the runner-up in the 200 breaststroke and sixth in the 100. Steenvoorden won the 400 freestyle and touched the wall in fifth place for the 800.

Their performances at the national meet earned them spots on the national team for an international competition. This past October at the 2011 Pan American Games, Spencer earned a silver medal in the 200 breaststroke. Steenvoorden took eighth in the 400 freestyle.

“[You get] accustomed to being at that elite level,” said Steenvoorden, who made the national team once before in 2009. “I think it definitely helps me build confidence, especially heading into a meet like Olympic trials. Just knowing that I’m racing some of the best in the country, but yet I’m still one of the best in the country.”

Spencer said she agreed that experience at national and international caliber meets will be invaluable.

“In 2008 when I went to trials, I had no idea what to expect and the pool was so large, there were Olympians everywhere, and I was freaked out, obviously,” Spencer said. “The fact that I have gone to this meet before … and that I’m on the national team … [is] really going to help my confidence level.”

 Spencer has the ninth and 14th seeds in the 200 and 100 breaststrokes, respectively. Steenvoorden is ranked sixth in the 400, eighth in the 800 and 69th in the 200 freestyle.

Head coach Kelly Kremer said the two aren’t favored to make the team, but the underdog status has served them well in the past and puts less pressure on the swimmers.

“This moment won’t be too big for them,” Kremer said. “Not that they need any additional motivation, but they know what it takes to get there and how much fun it is to get there. And they want to do it again and they want to do it at the highest level, which is the Olympic Games.”

Both will have to place in the top two of their events to travel to London. Steenvoorden, however, will only need a top-six finish in the 200 freestyle to make the team, as that event also makes up relays, Kremer said.

In addition to Spencer and Steenvoorden, current and recently graduated Gophers swimmers Katie Anton, Tess Behrens, Erin Caflisch, Annalise Colton, Emma Jackson, Kiera

Janzen, Tori Simenec, Kristen Steenvoorden, Lissa Tommerdahl, Becca Weiland and Lauren Weis are competing.

Former Gophers swimmers Christine Jennings and Keri Hehn are making appearances as well as future Minnesota freshman Lauren Votava.

Minnesota alumna Jillian Tyler made the Canadian Olympic team and will travel to London. Sophomore Jessica Plant competed at Canada’s Olympic trials, but fell short. Senior diver Kelci Bryant made the U.S. diving team last week.

“It speaks highly of the team,” Kremer said. “It tells us that we’re recruiting the right people. … It also speaks well of the experience student-athletes are having at Minnesota to want to continue to swim after their experience here — that their love for the sport continues to grow.”

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