In September, five Gophers’ alumni signed professional contracts to compete in the International Swimming League for the 2020 season.
Kierra Smith signed with the LA Current, Conner McHugh and Lindsey Kozelsky signed with DC Trident, Tevyn Waddell will be joining the NY Breakers and Bowe Becker will be rejoining the Cali Condors.
The ISL is entering only its second season of existence after a successful 2019 campaign last October. The ISL presents competitive professional swimming in a unique and exciting way. The league competes in teams of 16 men and 16 women. There are five North American-based teams and four European-based teams plus one in Tokyo, Japan. Last season, the league was known for its atmosphere — each event took place in front of an electric atmosphere that resembled more of an EDM concert rather than a swimming meet.
Becker and Smith will be entering their second seasons within the league, and Smith will be looking to defend a title after winning a league championship with the France-based Energy Standard in 2019. This year will be the first ISL season for McHugh, Kozelsky and Waddell. According to McHugh, all five swimmers are currently training together before leaving to begin their season.
Before joining the Condors, Becker, a freestyle specialist, had a terrific career with the Gophers. In his final season, he reached the NCAA Championships where he would finish runner up in the 100-meter freestyle event, falling short by .003 seconds. The Las Vegas native used this disappointing result to help him reach where he is at today.
“I just want to find things in my swimming to get better at,” Becker said. “I don’t want to hear the good part of the race, I want to hear the bad parts so I know I can keep improving. I definitely used it as motivation.”
Smith, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2017, is arguably the most decorated swimmer out of the group. The Kelowna, British Columbia, native still holds three school records. In the 2015 NCAA Championships, Smith took home gold in the 200 breast with room to breathe, winning the final race by more than two seconds, an event that she later finished in seventh in at the 2016 Olympics. The world-class swimmer found creative ways to stay in shape during these unpredictable times.
“My dad and I started a 16-week half marathon training program when I went back home in March. I learned to enjoy the process of running and how to not judge myself if it was a good run or a bad run,” Smith said.
“My childhood swim coach opened up his pool in April, and it even snowed one day. I was able to train in his 10-meter backyard pool for four months,” she said.
McHugh had quite the collegiate career with the Gophers as well: He finished as a six-time All-American. Now he will be joining fellow training partner, college teammate and backstroke specialist Kozelsky with the DC Trident. McHugh couldn’t be happier to have a familiar face on his team.
“I am really thankful for that and looking forward to that. We both grew up in the Midwest [and] both swam breaststroke, so it will be very fun to experience the ISL together and be on the same team,” McHugh said.
Kozelsky left her name on the Gophers swimming record books before graduating last spring. The Albert Lea, Minnesota, native currently holds the program record in the 100-meter breast, 200 medley relay and 400 medley relay. She realized that competing in the ISL was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up before moving into teaching.
“It’s a wonderful platform for swimmers to swim after collegiate athletics. It is a wonderful opportunity to grow the sport of swimming,” Kozelsky said. “This swimming opportunity will give me so much more perspective going into the classroom.”
Waddell etched her name into Minnesota’s record books multiple times during her collegiate career. The Mitchell, South Dakota, swimmer currently holds the school’s top spot in the 100 backstroke, 200 medley relay and 400 medley relay, as well as all-time best times in the 100 and 200 back events. Waddell hopes to get the most out of her swimming career before she begins a potential career in law.
“This opportunity fit in perfectly because I previously didn’t have any plans for this year. My intentions were going to law school in the fall of 2021 anyways,” Waddell said. “It will be fun to swim against big names that have gone or even won the Olympics.”
Amid the pandemic, the ISL will be using a bubble-like atmosphere in Budapest, Hungary, similar to the NBA’s in Orlando, Florida. There will be no fans, and the season will include strict medical protocols, including the housing of athletes in single rooms on Margaret Island, and each team will be allocated their own training pool.
Swimmers will be tested twice for COVID-19 before leaving their country of origin and then twice in Budapest before they can be cleared to train. Athletes are expected to be tested every five days.
The season begins Oct. 16 and runs through Nov. 22, with the finals taking place in late December at an unconfirmed location.
The competition will take place without spectators with five matches in October. Those will be followed by a further five starting in November to decide the top eight teams that will qualify for the semi-finals held from Nov. 19-22. The top four teams will then progress to the final in late December at an unconfirmed location.