When Gretchen He…

Ryan Schuster

When Gretchen Hegener was just 7 years old she used to tag along with her mother Gracia, a coach for a United States Swimming club team, and imitate the other swimmers during practice.
“She just did her own little thing while I was coaching,” Gracia Hegener said. “She really fell into it.”
Gracia coached her daughter for two years on the club team until she got out of coaching when Gretchen turned 10 years old.
“There’s a certain point where you can do just so much,” Gracia Hegener said. “You know kids don’t listen to parents after a certain age.”
A decade later, Gretchen is an All-American swimmer on the Gophers women’s swimming and diving team.
Hegener placed sixth at the NCAA meet last season in the 100-yard breaststroke, earning All-American honors for the second straight year. She is also Minnesota’s all-time school record holder in the 100 and 200 breaststroke events.
In the Gophers opening meet of the season on Nov. 2 at North Carolina, she automatically-qualified for the NCAA meet in the 100 breaststroke. When Hegener qualified, she became the first women’s swimmer in the history of Minnesota’s program to do so in the first meet of the season.
Her time of 1:02.32 also helped Hegener attain her current No. 1 national ranking in the event. Only three other women swimmers in the nation have posted times of under 1:03.00 this season.
“I was shocked,” Hegener said after qualifying. “That was very, very surprising to me. I usually look at that toward the Big Ten meet. It takes a lot of pressure off me. Now I’d like to qualify in the 200 breast.”
Hegener is also a force for the Gophers in the 200 breaststroke, and the 200 and 400 medley events. She placed third at the 1996 Big Tens in the 200 breaststroke, and she was named All-American honorable mention in the 200 medley, 400 medley and 200 freestyle at the 1996 NCAAs.
Hegener wasn’t always such a talented swimmer, though.
In fact, before ninth grade she was an average swimmer, usually finishing in the middle of the pack in competitions. During her freshman year at Mayer Lutheran High School, Hegener started swimming with older girls, which pushed her to swim faster.
Gophers coach Jean Freeman has noticed a change in Hegener during her three years at Minnesota.
“Last year when she was sixth at NCAAs gave her a lot of confidence,” Freeman said. “Since then she’s been swimming much better.”
As a freshman, Hegener earned All-American honorable mention accolades in the 200 medley relay with a 13th-place finish. She also swam to third and 10th place, respectively, in the 100 and 200 breaststroke at the 1995 Big Tens.
“I just slowly keep getting a little better year by year,” Hegener said. “I’m far ahead of where I thought I would be at this time, and I’m having a lot of fun doing it.”
Hegener’s athletic ability, work ethic and training in the weight room have all played major roles in her success and improvement in the pool, but her fun-loving personality stands out the most.
Senior teammate Jessica Smith thinks Hegener’s friendly demeanor helps her loosen up for important meets.
“She is literally silly before big competitions,” Smith said. “That’s how she gets ready, and it works for her.”
It is also her upbeat disposition that drives her to continue striving for bigger accomplishments. Hegener is not satisfied with her improvement or her past successes in the pool. She will not to sit back on her laurels, preferring instead to look ahead.
Hegener lists becoming an All-American in two events and Minnesota finishing in the top 10 at the NCAAs as her paramount goals for the rest of this season.
Smith is confident that Hegener can achieve those goals.
“She definitely has the potential to do a lot,” Smith said. “She’s blown us all away this season. It’s always amazing to see someone swim that fast right off.”
A lot of that potential stems from Hegener’s love for swimming, which started when she was a seven-year-old girl playing in the water while her mother was coaching.
“I’ve always enjoyed it,” Hegener said. “Swimming is a real hard sport, but it’s real fun. You have to love it, otherwise you can’t do it.”