Mortimer back after close shave at Olympic trials

After a year away to train, Justin Mortimer is back with hopes for collegiate glory.

If it weren’t for the slightest two-second detail, the world might know the name Justin Mortimer.

That’s the time by which the Minnesota men’s swimmer missed boarding a plane headed for Athens, Greece, to compete in the 1,500-meter freestyle at the 2004 Olympics.

But like many Olympic hopefuls, Mortimer refuses to stop short of his goal. The senior continues his quest this year as the Gophers’ team captain.

“I think I was physically prepared to make the Olympics this past season,” Mortimer said. “But mentally, I wasn’t sure I was able to do it.”

Last year, Mortimer opted to redshirt to train for the Olympic trials with renowned coach Bill Rose in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Rose, who was recently inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame, said he thoroughly enjoyed training with Mortimer.

“His work ethic is second to none,” Rose said. “He is one of the best trainers in the world.”

Gophers coach Dennis Dale said Mortimer profits from that newfound experience with loads of confidence.

“We weren’t as good of a team because he took the year off,” Dale said. “But we’re a better team this year when he returns.”

This year, Mortimer has hopes of grabbing the NCAA Championship that has eluded the program.

He is set to do his part.

This August, Mortimer won four national titles, including the 200, 400 and 800 freestyles, and the 400 individual medley at the U.S. Summer Nationals. He was also the highest point-scorer at the event.

Other accolades include being a member of the U.S. team at the 2004 FINA World Short Course Championship and swimming for Team USA in the 2003 World University Games in Daegu, South Korea.

Mortimer is also the school record holder in three distance freestyles – the 500, 1,000 and 1,650. Looking to break some more school records this year at the Big Ten Championships, Dale said he thinks that is very possible.

“I think he is the best distance swimmer Minnesota has ever had,” Dale said.

Now, Mortimer wants to show it on the biggest stage until the next Olympics.

In 2003, Mortimer won the Big Ten title in the 1,650. This year, he’ll use Big Tens as a tune-up.

“This year, I’m not shaving and tapering,” Mortimer said. “I’m saving everything I got for the NCAAs.”

The NCAA Championships are at the University Aquatic Center this year, and the team hopes the public will take notice.

Mortimer said he feels a supportive home-crowd fan base might be just what the seventh-ranked Gophers need to get to the top.

“This year,” Mortimer said, “We’re making a push to become one of the top five teams in the country.”