Splichalova has Olympic talent without the ego

Jim Schortemeyer

First impressions are funny. Normally, athletes are very confident in their abilities, and like to display their team affiliation.
Olga Splichalova is an exception. The senior captain of the Gophers women’s swimming and diving team rarely wears team apparel, and you’d never know she has competed in two Olympics unless you looked closely at her school bag.
But her humble nature certainly belies her prowess in the pool.
Splichalova, a native of Znojmo in the former Czechoslovakia, has the most international experience of any Gophers swimmer. In 1992, she tried out for Czechoslovakia’s’s swim team, not really expecting to make it. She surprised herself and the swimming community by not only making the team but also placing sixth in the 800 meter freestyle in Olympic competition.
“I didn’t really realize at the time that was the big meet, that everybody dreams about,” she said.
After the Olympics, Splichalova decided she wanted to go to college in the United States.
Earlier that year, the Gophers women’s team placed 10th at the NCAA Championships, its highest finish ever. That event proved to be a key in Splichalova’s choice in college. She sent a letter to all of the schools who finished in the top 10 at the Championships, thus narrowly qualifying Minnesota as one of her options.
Eventually, the other schools dropped out of the running, and Splichalova came to the University. Since then, Splichalova and fellow senior Kimberly Wilson have combined for five Big Ten Championship wins, three second place finishes and three third place finishes.
In 1996, Splichalova returned to Olympic competition, this time with a purpose in mind. Her focus was up, but her results went down. She placed 13th in the 800 freestyle, her highest individual finish.
“I was disappointed because I wanted to do better,” she said. “But I had a lot more fun after swimming was done.”
After the Olympics, Splichalova returned to Minnesota, and continued to enjoy her good fortune in distance races. Last year, Splichalova was undefeated in the 1650, 1000, and 500 yard races. She repeated her Big Ten win in the 500 freestyle, but something was missing. She didn’t qualify in the 1650 freestyle.
“That was a big disappointment for me, because I think I was probably in the best shape possible,” Splichalova said.
The senior captain is a double-major in Russian and Spanish — “I like languages,” she says matter-of-factly — which can lead to a rigorous classload. But that’s not to say her swimming has suffered.
Splichalova has never been defeated in the 1000 freestyle in NCAA competition. She’s also been an All-American each of her first three years, and it appears likely she will repeat the feat during her fourth and final year.
Splichalova and Wilson, both distance swimmers, are considered role models for other swimmers by women’s assistant swim coach Terry Nieszner. Nieszner should know, being a former All-American and Big Ten champion herself.
“Their work ethic and leadership trickles down from the distance swimmers down,” Nieszner said.
The team will need that dedication as it prepares for both the Big Ten Championships, three weekends from now, and the NCAA Championships in March. Splichalova is the two-time champion in the 500 freestyle and intends to add the term “three-peat” to her English vocabulary.
As for the NCAA Championships, she would like to place in the top three. After finishing sixth in 1995, and fifth in 1996, it appears as though she will be a favorite heading into this year’s meet. If she were to win, she would become Minnesota’s third National Champion ever, joining senior captain Gretchen Hegener (1997, 100 breaststroke), and diver Chris Curry (1981, 3-meter diving).
But even if Splichalova does win a national title and finishes her career with all her streaks intact, don’t look for her to get flashier or more boastful. Perhaps her assistant coach summed up the unassuming Splichalova best.
“She swims to win,” Nieszner said.