Swimmers abuzz for Big Ten meet at Aquatic Center

Kristian Pope

Some sported their team logo neatly carved into a haircut, others wore T-shirts painted with inspiring slogans. Nearly 300 Big Ten swimmers practiced Wednesday morning in preparation for the 15th annual conference championships, which begin today at the Aquatic Center.
While there probably were more butterflies around poolside than one sees on a spring walk through the wilderness, teams exhibited a calm confidence.
Top 25 programs such as Wisconsin, Northwestern and Penn State prepared with a desire to finish in the top three at this year’s event.
Then there is Michigan, the defending Big Ten champion. With a class of celebrated freshman, the 1995 NCAA runners-up seem poised to win their 10th straight women’s title this weekend.
And of course there is Minnesota. Knowing the Gophers men’s team stole its first conference title in 70 years last week, the women took to the water, perhaps, with their own thoughts of an upset.
Hey, if the Gophers’ men can upset Michigan in Ann Arbor, then surely Minnesota’s women can beat the Wolverines in Minneapolis, right?
Then again, maybe not.
“I know the women at Michigan watched what happened last week, and there’s no way they’re going to let that happen to them,” said Gophers coach Jean Freeman.
While Freeman spent the morning timing her swimmers, men’s coach Dennis Dale could not avoid congratulations from out of town coaches.
A Gophers women’s victory over Michigan, like the men’s team, seems unlikely. Yet, the men’s team exhibited identical feelings and escaped with the title.
“The thing that rubs off is that the unexpected can happen,” said Freeman referring to her team’s use of the energy the men’s victory created.
Freeman believes the battle for second place will be a very strong one. She anticipates the strongest challenges coming from Wisconsin and Penn State.
Even though the Gophers predict a Wolverines win — Michigan returns 13 placewinners from last year’s Big Tens — Freeman believes her team can close the gap between first and second place.
“I believe we will be closer to Michigan this year than last year,” said Freeman, whose team finished a distant second last year.
Closing the gap, and getting people qualified for NCAAs are the Gophers’ goals at Big Tens. Both appear achievable.
Tanya Schuh (butterfly), Gretchen Hegener (breaststroke) and Olga Splichalova (distance freestyle) have already qualified for NCAAs, yet their presence will need to be felt for the Gophers to score points.
Clearly, the trio have emerged as stars for Minnesota. The sophomore Splichalova has been dominant in the 500- and 1650-yard freestyle. Earlier this year, Schuh recorded the nation’s best time in the 100 butterfly. And Hegener has helped anchor the medley relay teams making them strengths for the Gophers.
Here is a look at the events where the Gophers appear to be strong, and where the team may find the toughest competition:
ù With Splichalova and the Gophers’ only defending Big Ten champion, Kim Wilson, the distance freestyle events are covered. Splichalova has already qualified for NCAAs in the 1,650. Wilson has yet to get a berth for NCAAs, so doing well here — despite her desire to peak for Olympic Trials — is a must. Alicia Hicken, Jenny Bloomer and Tressia Shaw round out Minnesota in the 1,650 — an event in which the Gophers should score many points.
ù Freeman has never been happier with the performance of the junior Schuh, the team’s top swimmer overall. This season Schuh will be hard to beat. However, Michigan returns Talor Bendel, last year’s Big Ten champion in the 200 butterfly. Jessica Grass gives Minnesota hope for additional scoring in this event.
ù The diving events will be intriguing as the Gophers’ Andrea Berg and Jenny Cook look to improve on last year’s finishes. Berg placed fourth in the 1-meter and sixth in the 3-meter, while Cook placed ninth and eighth respectively. Indiana returns defending 1-meter champion, Jennifer Dixon, while Michigan returns conference Diver of the Year, Carris Zarse.
ù In the freestyle relays, Northwestern is led by seniors Meredith Booker and Kim Paton. Last year, the Wildcats set a Big Ten record in the 400 freestyle. The Gophers appear to have an advantage in the 800 freestyle, as Suzie Helvig and Splichalova will be joined by either Wilson, Hicken or Devon Coellner. Freeman said she will make final decisions on her relay teams after the preliminary sessions.
All of these factors leave Minnesota with an honest chance of taking second at Big Tens. Yet, to do that, Freeman said, the Gophers must score three people in each event.
Notes: The Gophers will be without backstroker Shona Baillie, who is recovering from a wrist injury. Five Big Ten teams are nationally ranked with Michigan No. 2, followed by Northwestern (14), Minnesota (15), Penn State (20) and Wisconsin (21). Swimming trials begin today at 11 a.m. at the Aquatic Center, with 1-meter diving trials and finals at 1 p.m. Swimming finals begin at 7 p.m. First-day events include the 200 medley relay, 500 freestyle, 200 freestyle relay, 50 freestyle and the 400 medley relay.