Gophers deliver at Minnesota Challenge

It was the last meet for the team before the Big Ten championships.

David Nelson

Many of Minnesota’s top athletes rested over the weekend in preparation for the upcoming Big Ten championships, but senior Jimmy Rafter had a meet to remember.

The entire Minnesota bench stood on its feet for Rafter’s last race as a member of the Gophers.

The mass of yellow and white chanted his name as he prepped himself for the starting bell of the 200-yard backstroke.

Rafter swam his way to a sizable lead, but he halted himself at the wall after the first 100 yards of the race.

“I decided with my coach earlier that I was just going to go for my 100-[yard] backstroke time,” Rafter said. “It looked like I was going out in a blaze of glory.”

The senior coasted the rest of the way, savoring the final 100 yards of his Gophers career.

“It was a lot of taking in the surroundings,” Rafter said. “I’m not going to look up and see the corrugated steel anymore. A little bit of emotions — I was welling up a little bit under the water.”

Rafter won’t be joining the men’s team later this month when Minnesota travels to Iowa for the Big Ten championships.

However, head coach Kelly Kremer said the senior’s presence will be missed next year.

“He’s so well liked by everybody,” Kremer said. “You can tell the way the team responds to him and the way he responds to the team. … He brings energy to everybody.”

Rafter was one of several Gophers making their last appearances for Minnesota.

“We had some young men not being on a conference team as seniors,” Kremer said. “That’s a real tough challenge for them, and I think the attitude that they displayed throughout this weekend … it’s a compliment to the type of people they are.”

For those going to the Big Ten championships, the Minnesota Challenge presented the opportunity to showcase their talent in other races.

Junior Kierra Smith — a typical breaststroker — swam the 200-yard freestyle and 100-yard butterfly and placed fifth and second, respectively.

Senior Devin Ste. Marie, who will compete at Big Ten championships and swam the 200-yard freestyle, said she thinks swimming in the season finale rather than resting helped her prepare for the championship season.

“I didn’t mind participating because I only did one session,” Ste. Marie said. “It’s not too close to Big Ten’s, so it’s kind of nice to do my last unrested meet.”

Minnesota concluded the competition with 24 event wins.

“Overall, my impressions are that we really got out of the weekend what we wanted to accomplish,” Kremer said. “We had a lot of good team energy. I think it was a nice way to start our championship season.”

Four of those wins came courtesy of the diving teams, who took the top four spots in all four of the events.

“We are such a balanced team,” Kremer said. “We’re loaded with great divers right now.”

Now, the Gophers shift their focus to the Big Ten championships, with the women’s championship less than two weeks away.

“This weekend was a really great start to our championship season,” Ste. Marie said. “I think everyone’s pretty excited and confident.”