Feb. 14, 2012
As the Minnesota women's swimming and diving team makes the trip to Iowa City, Iowa for the 2012 Big Ten Championships this week, Gophersports.com recently caught up with women's head coach Terry Nieszner to preview the event and get her thoughts on what is on the horizon for the 15th-ranked Golden Gophers for the remainder of the season.
You finished second last year at the Big Ten Championships, what do you think it's going to take to win it all this year?
"It's going to take everyone on the team performing at their lifetime best, and I believe that we've prepared ourselves to do that. We're just in that situation where everybody has to do a lifetime best performance. "
What is the atmosphere like at the Big Ten Championships?
"It's a whole different level of fans than they're used to. We just had a team meeting and that's actually what one of the upperclassmen said. Just be prepared. It's so much louder than any meet you've ever been at. When you're behind the blocks you have to be prepared for that. It's a good loud, she said, but it's definitely different. As a freshman, she said that was something that came as a surprise. It's electric; it's the Big Ten's, and it's the best of the Big Ten, probably the deepest conference in the country. You've got 12 outstanding teams and its all college women, it's the best of the best. It's fun, it's electric and it's exciting."
How do you think all of the freshman will handle the pressure?
"I think that the freshman will be outstanding. They're an experienced group of freshman, almost every one of them have competed at the National level in club swimming. I think we have an outstanding balance of upperclassmen with Haley Spencer, a returning National champion, and with Ashley Steenvoorden being a National champion in the summer. They have kids they can look to who have the experience, and I think that settles the freshman down some and they know that the NCAA's is really their ultimate goal and this is a stepping stone. It's not quite the paralyzing pressure that you get sometimes as freshman, I think for them as a group, this is definitely important, but their ultimate goal is the NCAA Championships."
How do the Big Ten's prepare them for NCAA Championships?
"It's definitely a meet that you have to swim your lifetime best to get to the NCAA Championships. It's a format where prelims or finals, you have to be on in the morning to get the second swim at night. It is kind of a dress rehearsal for NCAA's. NCAA's are definitely a step up from the Big Ten Championships, but the format is exactly the same and has the same order of events. It definitely prepares them with the format and schedule being the same. It's just a little bit, or in some cases, a lot faster."
What would it mean to have Ashley Steenvoorden win the 1650 freestyle for her fourth year in a row?
"Ashley has competed nationally, she's competed internationally now. Obviously, her goal is NCAA's and, really, Olympic trials in June. I think it's important for Ashley at the Big Ten level, but again for her it's a stepping stone in the championship season. She is a competitor. She'll swim at her best, because it's her last Big Ten's. It would be great to win it again, but I don't think that is necessarily going to be a make or break for Ashley. She's looking beyond that, but obviously wants to perform at the Big Ten level."
Along with Ashley and Haley, who else do you see as a front runner?
"We have some freshman who I think are going to surprise some people. Tori Simenec has received three or four Big Ten Freshman Swimmer of the Week honor, so I think she's going to have some great swims. Our sophomores are going to break out quite a bit. Tess Behrens is certainly going in ranked pretty high in the 100 backstroke and I think she'll surprise some people in the 200 backstroke. She didn't final last year as a freshman, so I think she's going to surprise some people. We have people in every group and we're going to have some surprises, we have Devin Ste. Marie in the fly along with Tori. In the IM, Elizabeth Weitz is breaking out as a junior and I think she is also going to surprise people. I think the whole team; we're going to have kids that surprise at every level."
Obviously winning is the main goal, but what are some of your other goals heading into the championships?
"Qualifying people for the NCAA Championship is really our ultimate goal. If we could come away from Big Ten's being a second or third place team, but qualifying 14 or 15 individuals for NCAA's, we would be ecstatic and that would definitely be what we would consider a success. But again, it's fun to win at the conference level. I think that's going to be every team's goal, to win this thing. I believe we have, as does a lot of other teams, the ability to win it. It's just putting it all together in those four days."
What other team do you think has a strong chance of winning it all?
"Looking at the season and going into it, Indiana is definitely favored to win the meet, they are strong. And, I think Ohio State, on paper, would be favored to be second. We're hoping to contend for it, so I would think those three teams are going to be the three battling it out, but you're going to have Wisconsin in there and Penn State. I think the top three are going to be Indiana, Ohio State and Minnesota battling it out, and Michigan, I shouldn't count them out. They are ranked ahead of us right now, so I would say those four teams. Even though we beat Michigan in a dual meet, they've performed much better as the season has gone on and they're strong in diving."
Who do you think improved the most from this time last year to this year?
"I would said Liz Weitz, definitely in the breaststroke, has broken it out. She didn't score last year at the Big Ten's and I think she will final in two, maybe three, events this year. Tess Behrens didn't final last year and I think she's going in seeded second in the 100 back, so she definitely has improved from her freshman to sophomore year. Erin Caflisch didn't score last year and she has to be a major player for us to be successful, and she has set herself up to do that. Jenna Howenstein didn't make the team last year and as a sophomore we're expecting her to score, so those are some individuals that definitely have made an improvement."
How do you think the losses of Jillian Tyler and Kelci Bryant will affect the Big Ten's and NCAA's?
"Obviously, any time you lose two National Champions off of your team it has an effect. I think in Kelci's case, Indiana is also going to be missing a couple divers at the level who will be at the World Cup in London so that might help balance it out. Maggie Keefer has done a great job this year and is ready to step in. We'll have four very good divers there, our diving program is strong. With losing Jill, she was solid across the board, in the sprint breaststroke on the medley relays, in the 100 and 200, and 200 IM. But we have Haley Spencer, Elizabeth Weitz, who I said has stepped it up and Emma Jackson. She is another one that improved dramatically and got her Olympic trail cut this summer. We're building behind it but obviously we'll miss Jill and Kelci winning, but we have people to back them up."
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