Splichalova looks to repeat at Big Ten swimming meet

by Ryan Schuster

Three years ago an overwhelmed 19-year-old college freshman named Olga Splichalova stood inside the University Aquatic Center for the first time, in awe.
The junior distance freestyler was agape at the size of the Aquatic Center. Splichalova fondly recalls the story of the first time she saw the Gophers home pool.
“I still remember it,” Splichalova said. “It was in the morning at 6 and the whole team was on the pool deck getting ready to go into the water.”
The pool in which Splichalova competed in her home town of Znojmo, Czech Republic only had four lanes and as many as 10 swimmers would crowd each lane during practices and meets. By contrast, the Aquatic Center has 16 lanes — not counting the diving area. Add the amenities of a training room and weight room, and Splichalova was in her idea of heaven.
Starting today she will be competing in another first-rate facility, the Indiana University Natatorium, for the Big Ten championships in Indianapolis, Ind. The championships will run through Saturday.
The Aquatic Center and the IU Natatorium are considered two of the finest swimming facilities in the country.
Since coming to the United States as a freshman in 1994, Splichalova has become one of the best collegiate swimmers in the nation. She is a two-time All-American in the 1,650-yard freestyle and a two-time All-America honorable mention in the 500 freestyle. The Spanish and Russian double-major is also the defending Big Ten champion in both events, a distinction she would like to earn again at the conference meet.
Her successful Gophers swimming career came about almost by accident. Splichalova’s high school English teacher in the Czech Republic convinced her to write letters to American college swimming programs requesting an athletic scholarship. She sent out 20 letters to different coaches, not really believing that she would ever get any of them back. About 15 of the 20 coaches wrote back, though, including Gophers coach Jean Freeman.
Freeman also saw a tape of Splichalova swimming in the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, when Splichalova was only 16. Splichalova was indeed inexperienced, but her youth didn’t stop her from placing sixth in the 800-meter freestyle.
By finishing sixth, she became the first Czech woman to make it to the finals in any Olympic event. Splichalova became a national celebrity overnight and was immediately thrust into the country’s media spotlight.
“At the airport, there were TV and newspaper reporters everywhere,” Splichalova said. “It was fun for me to have all that attention, but it was kind of hard for me to deal with, too.”
She has remained a national sports hero in her home country. She continues to get calls by members of the Czech media wondering why she is not going home to compete with the Czech national team during the season. She had competed with the team her previous two years at Minnesota.
This season she has decided to focus her time and energy on swimming and school, waiting to compete with the national squad until the end of the school year.
The decision was not an easy one for Splichalova, though. Her father, Tony, was hospitalized in the Czech Republic a month ago with a bad case of the flu. He has since recovered, and Splichalova hopes her decision not to go will pay off with a good performance this weekend at the Big Tens.
Splichalova competed in the summer Olympics again last summer in Atlanta, becoming the first Gophers women’s swimmer to compete in the Olympics while still attending school at Minnesota. She swam the 800-meter freestyle, the same event that paved her way to swim at Minnesota.
The school record-holder in the 500-yard freestyle, and member of the 400 medley and 800 freestyle relay teams, is having perhaps the best season of her Gophers career. Splichalova has NCAA consideration times in three different individual events and the best times in the Big Ten in four separate events. She has continued to improve during her collegiate career as evidenced by how hard she works during practice.
“Her work ethic is phenomenal,” Freeman said. “She just cranks it out every day. She will race against anyone, even herself.”
The Gophers are hoping that this weekend she will swim like she has all season, with herself as her toughest opponent. No matter how well she does at the Big Tens, unlike three years ago, Splichalova won’t be intimidated by the pool in which she is swimming.