Spencer, Smith carry on breaststroke tradition

The Gophers have historically swum well in the breaststroke.

Haley Spencer swims the women's 100-yard breaststroke  Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, at the University Aquatic Center. Spencer has won the 200 breaststroke in back-to-back years at the Big Ten championships.

Emily Dunker

Haley Spencer swims the women’s 100-yard breaststroke Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, at the University Aquatic Center. Spencer has won the 200 breaststroke in back-to-back years at the Big Ten championships.

Nate Gotlieb

When it comes to the breaststroke, chances are Minnesota has you beat.

Women’s swimming senior captain Haley Spencer won the 200-yard breaststroke at the 2011 NCAA championships, and she may not be the Gophers’ best swimmer in the event.

Freshman breaststroker Kierra Smith has the seventh-fastest 200 breaststroke time in the NCAA this season, the third-fastest of all freshmen.

Spencer and Smith are part of a longstanding tradition of breaststroke success at Minnesota.

“We’ve always been really balanced,” men’s and women’s head coach Kelly Kremer said. “But I think in breaststroke, maybe we’ve just been more consistent over the years.”

Minnesota’s breaststroke success started back in 1997 as Gretchen Hegener won the NCAA championship in the 100 breaststroke.

The women’s program broke through again in 2011 when Jillian Tyler won the 100 breaststroke at the NCAA championships and Spencer won the 200 breaststroke.

Not to be outdone, the men’s team has had multiple All-American breaststrokers since 1999. One of them, Mike Brown, finished fourth in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing.

The current men’s breaststrokers have made more modest contributions. Jared Anderson, a senior captain, has placed in the top-six in the Big Ten championships in the 100 breaststroke the last two seasons. Senior Josh Hall finished third in the 200 breaststroke at last season’s Big Ten championships.

A strong breaststroke tradition has helped Minnesota recruit top breaststrokers, Tyler said.

“When you have one or two good breaststrokers on a team, it kind of draws other top breaststrokers in from across the country,” she said. 

Smith said that tradition was a big reason she came to Minnesota.

The Gophers have a specialized training program for their breaststrokers, who often practice separately from the rest of the team. Kremer, who has coached Minnesota’s breaststrokers for more than a decade, has the swimmers break the stroke down into components while practicing.

“I don’t really allow them to swim a lot of bad breaststroke, where they’re tired and just swimming poorly,” he said.

Members of the breaststroke group push each other to swim faster, even in practice.

“The great thing about our breaststroke group is it’s not just when you get to the NCAA championships [that you are] competitive with one another,” Spencer said. “It’s every day in practice.”

While Kremer’s coaching style helps the breaststrokers refine their technique, he said the relationships formed between Minnesota’s breaststrokers have been the crux for their success in the event.

“Without [Tyler], I don’t think Haley [would have] had the success she would have,” he said. “Without Haley and Jill, I don’t think Kierra Smith will ultimately have the same success.”

Spencer said she thinks she and Smith could finish strong at the NCAA championships this spring.

“We have the possibility to go one-two this year,” she said.