Hegener becomes U’s first women’s swim champion

by Ryan Schuster

Almost simultaneously, the two hands touched the wall through a spray of water on Mar. 21 at the women’s NCAA swimming and diving championships in Indianapolis. Immediately, junior swimmer Gretchen Hegener turned around and looked up at the scoreboard at the Indiana University Natatorium.
Her name flashed up in first place beside the time of 1 minute, .32 seconds. She stared for a moment as reality sunk in: She had just become the American record-holder in the 100-yard breaststroke and the first NCAA swimming champion in Gophers history. Then, she began to smile broadly as she looked first at her teammates on the sidelines and then at her parents seated in the stands.
“I was so excited after the race,” Hegener said, with a smile. “I never expected to do anything like that. I just went out there and swam my own race. When I looked up at the scoreboard, I was really surprised.”
Hegener’s time beat out second-place finisher Christy Kowal of Georgia by a mere .06 seconds. In the process, she became only the second female Gophers athlete to win an NCAA championship. Gymnast Marie Roethlisberger, who won the uneven bar competition at the 1990 NCAA women’s gymnastics championships is the other. Hegener also set a new Big Ten record, school record and pool record with her amazing time.
“I knew (winning the 100 breaststroke) was a possibility, but it was not one of our goals going in,” Gophers coach Jean Freeman said. “We never even talked about it.”
But the native of Cologne, Minn., didn’t stop there. She also went on to become an All-American in the 200 breaststroke and on the 200 and 400 medley relay teams, setting a school record for most All-America honors at a single NCAA meet.
Her achievement at the NCAAs was only the latest in a string of stellar performances by Hegener this season. A month ago at the Big Ten championships, she won two of the three individual events in which she was entered en route to being named the Big Ten co-Swimmer of the Year. She was the Gophers’ top point-scorer at the meet with 49 points. Hegener was also the Big Ten Swimmer of the Month for January and February.
“She had a lot of confidence this season and she was really ready to swim,” senior teammate Jessica Grass said. “Everybody knew that Gretchen could swim fast. I don’t think people realized how fast, though.”
The school record-holder in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke, Hegener has improved and gotten stronger with each meet this season. After a solid but not spectacular freshman year, Hegener broke loose last year. The junior won a Big Ten title as a member of the 200 medley relay team last year.
It was her sixth-place finish in the 100 breaststroke at the 1996 NCAAs that was the catalyst, though. After her strong performance at the NCAAs a year ago, Hegener has gone from being just another talented swimmer with potential to becoming the top swimmer on the team.
Despite all her accomplishments in the pool, Hegener is better known on the team for her friendly and outgoing personality. She can often be found cheering up her teammates with her humor and trademark smile before meets.
“The way I relax is to just joke around, laugh and have fun with my teammates,” Hegener said. “I have to have a good sense of humor during meets, otherwise I get too tense.”
Whatever Hegener is doing, it seems to be working.