Freshman Tom Donker ready to start for Minnesota’s 400-yard medley relay team at NCAAs

Donker qualified for the event in the 200-yard and 400-yard medley relays.

Erik Nelson

When the 400-yard medley relay starts at the NCAA championships, freshman Tom Donker will be the first in the water for Minnesota.

Minnesota is hosting the men’s NCAA championships for the first time since 2011. This year, Donker is making his NCAA championships debut Thursday.

Donker, who is from the Netherlands, attended high school in Zambia before coming to the U.S. He said he is concerned that the atmosphere at the NCAAs will overwhelm him.

“It’s going to be a big meet with lots of fast swimmers,” Donker said. “I’m nervous that I’m not going to be able to stick to my race plan, my warm-up routine and get caught up in all the other business.”

Donker will compete in the 200-yard and the 400-yard medley relays. His 400-yard medley relay team qualified after winning silver at the Big Ten championships on Feb. 22.

Head coach Kelly Kremer said Donker will be better than he was at the Big Ten championships last month.

“[Donker] did a nice job for his first year, but he was flat. He needed more rest,” Kremer said. “I’m excited. He’ll have better swims here. We need big swims from him.”

Donker, Bowen Becker, Conner McHugh and Matthew Thomas comprise Minnesota’s 400-yard relay team. Donker will start the relay for Minnesota on backstroke. 

McHugh said Donker has adjusted well to college swimming since he moved to the U.S.

“There’s a lot to learn with college swimming.” McHugh said. “I was impressed with his willingness to start over and learn the sport in a new way with yards and a new team.”

At the NCAA championships last year, Minnesota’s 400-yard relay team of Becker, Paul Fair, Tuomas Pokkinen and Daryl Turner finished 13th, completing the relay in 2:51.06. 

Donker said he hopes to gain valuable experience swimming in the 400-yard relay.

“Being able to control my nerves and know that this is going to be a fast meet and be prepared for the next couple of years,” Donker said. “The goal is to swim individually [at the NCAAs] as well.”

In the last month, Minnesota has hosted the Big Ten championships and NCAA Zone Diving Championship at Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center.

Donker said he wants to use the energy of the home crowd to his advantage.

“It’s hard to explain. You’re nervous in those moments when you want to swim fast,” Donker said. “Having the support of the crowd cheering for you and wanting you to do well gives you extra motivation for you to swim faster.”

Kremer hopes Donker will learn something about himself when he swims in the 400-yard medley relay. He said the NCAA championships will help Donker develop into a better swimmer.

“There’s nothing like the experience of being in the biggest moments,” Kremer said. “I hope he has a good time during the week to enjoy and appreciate the opportunity he has and appreciate the fact that he’s reached this level of swimming. I hope it helps it builds his confidence.”