Emphasis on the individuals as Gophers travel to Indiana for Big Tens

by Matt Perkins

It’s easier to be confident about achieving goals when the bar isn’t set so high.

Minnesota’s women’s swimming team has just that luxury heading into the Big Ten Championships in Bloomington, Ind., which begin at 7 p.m. today and run through Saturday.

Entering the tournament ranked 23rd in the nation, the Gophers are looking at a fourth-place finish as ideal and a top-half finish as an expectation.

But mostly, the focus will be on individuals.

What would normally be a meet that sets the stage for next month’s NCAA Championships for the team is in fact on par with the kind of competition the Gophers’ individuals will face at NCAAs this year.

Seven Big Ten teams are currently ranked in the top 25: Minnesota, No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 14 Penn State, No. 17 Michigan, No. 18 Indiana and Purdue and Northwestern, who both share No. 24.

“We are really hoping for some individual performances and for the team to finish somewhere in the top half,” co-coach Terry Nieszner said.

During practices and tapering periods, the Gophers have been focusing on team confidence.

It’s hard for confidence to spawn from mere hopes, but the Gophers coaching staff did outline a few goals for the team members going into the weekend: to look, act and perform to the highest standards set by themselves; to appear unified on the deck; to be the loudest, most-spirited and obnoxious team and to have at least eight individuals qualify for the NCAA Championships.

Junior Kate Hardt should be one of those eight.

After finishing last year’s Big Ten Championships with 36.5 points, Hardt competed at NCAAs in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter freestyles and the 200 medley relay.

By using the team standards set forth by the coaches, Hardt said, she looks to improve on last year’s performances.

“A big thing for me has always been confidence,” she said. “It has always been something I’ve struggled with.

“I’m also working on making my turns more tight and working on leg strength to make my underwater kicking more powerful.”

But from a swimming standpoint, Hardt appears to be on top of her game. A week ago, she received Big Ten swimmer of the week honors for finishing first in the 50-yard free and the 200 backstroke.

Hardt said the award gives her personal confidence as she looks to qualify. But the team doesn’t share her hopes.

The message from the Gophers swimmers emphasized personal achievements and simply enjoying the experience.

As a team, the goal might be a fourth-place finish. But co-coach Kelly Kremer said there is no pressure on the team going in.

“It’s just another swim meet,” Kremer said. “But if we swim our best, we can finish fourth.”