Freshmen key to program’s revival

A pair of freshman distance swimmers already is performing beyond expectations.

Matt Perkins

A top-notch swimming program and a warm climate ” these are the top two decision-making factors for most prospective collegiate swimmers across the globe.

Luckily for Minnesota’s women’s swimming and diving team, the second isn’t that important to a pair of invaluable distance swimmers.

Freshmen Christine Jennings and Yuen Kobayashi have emerged this season as future All-American candidates, and they give the Gophers a glimpse at a very bright future.

“My mom likes to joke with me about how I decided to go to school at “Minne-so-cold,’ ” Jennings said. “But there is no doubt in my mind I made the right choice.”

Jennings and Kobayashi lead the way for a Gophers freshmen class that expects to bring Big Ten and possibly national championship hopes back to the women’s program.

“Our freshmen class is going to help take Minnesota to the next level,” co-coach Terry Nieszner said. “I don’t know if it’s going to be next year or two years, but these kids are only going to get better.”

Co-coach Kelly Kremer specifically singled out Kobayashi and Jennings in recruiting, believing they possessed everything Minnesota needed to get to the top of the Big Ten.

In fact, the Gophers are so confident in the strength of their distance group that they didn’t sign any new distance swimmers.

It’s a choice nobody can second guess with the way Kobayashi and Jennings have performed so far this season.

Both have met the NCAA automatic qualifying standard in the 500-yard freestyle, and Jennings set a Minnesota school record in the event.

Combined, Kobayashi and Jennings have 15 first- and 11 second-place finishes this season.

Those are encouraging results, to say the least.

But perhaps last weekend’s quad duals at the University Aquatic Center against Wisconsin, Purdue and Illinois were the best example of the great things to come.

Heading into the last leg of the 400 freestyle relay, the final event of the weekend, Minnesota was trailing No. 9 Wisconsin in points and in the race.

But not by much.

Purdue was well out in front, so second place was going to come down to the last 100 yards.

“Christine swam the last leg for us,” Kobayashi said. “And we all knew she could do it.”

Jennings already had won the 500 free and taken second in the 1000, while Kobayashi won the 1000 and took second behind Jennings in the 500.

With the team and the home crowd at her back, Jennings edged Wisconsin junior Susan Johnson to give the Gophers valuable points.

Minnesota waited patiently for the scores only to see that the Badgers snuck away with a 179-174 win.

But Jennings’ strong finish may have given the Gophers the greatest prize ” confidence.

“That race gave us so much confidence because we know we can compete with anyone in the Big Ten,” Jennings said. “I think it really showed teams that they have to watch out for Minnesota.”