by Bob San
Former Maple Grove High swimming standout Tess Behrens followed the 2012 Olympics competition with a special personal interest as the likes of Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin and Ryan Lochte achieved Olympic glories in the past two weeks. About a month ago, Behrens was swimming alongside these Olympic legends at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
Behrens, who just finished a banner sophomore season at the University of Minnesota, was invited to the trials to compete in the backstrokes. She knew going into the meet that she would not make the Olympics team because the competition was so strong, but she was still thrilled with the experience.
“A lot of people said the U.S. Trials is tougher and faster than the Olympics. It’s crazy how much fast swimming was going on,” Behrens said. “To be where I was incredible. I didn’t go into it with any realistic thoughts that I’d make the Olympic team. I went in with the thought that I wanted to have fun and enjoy the experience. I definitely accomplished that.”
In a way, Behrens was like a fan who was able to get a close-up look at these famous U.S. swimmers. She swam in the prelims and didn’t make the final. That gave her the opportunity to watch the finals as a spectator. Behrens still has a hard time believing she was competing at the same U.S. Trials as swimmers she has idolized since she was a kid.
“Seeing all these people you grew up idolizing — the Aaron Peirsols, the Ryan Lochtes, the Natalie Coughlins,” she said. “Growing up, I wanted to be like them and all of a sudden you are swimming in the same lane with them at warm-ups. It’s insane to think that all of a sudden I am almost at the same level as people I grew up idolizing. They are the Olympians and you are there experiencing the same thing with them.”
During the Olympics, Behrens followed some athletes she knows well. Eden Prairie’s Rachel Botsma, who competed in the 100 backstroke, swam with and against Behrens when they were younger.
“We are friends. I swam with her for 2 ½ years before college,” Behrens said. “I am so happy to see her get to experience that.”
Then there are the U of M connections. Diver Kelci Bryant took the silver medal in women’s synchronized diving at the guidance of U of M diving coach Wenbo Chen. And former teammate Jillian Tyler swam the breaststroke for Canada.
“It was incredible to watch Kelci. We all watched it and it was so nice,” Behrens said. “I am so happy she was able to accomplish that.”
Behrens’ Olympic Trials experienced capped a brilliant season during, which she attained many top honors. Behrens entered the season as an All American after swimming the anchor leg of the 4×200 free relay team that took ninth place at the NCAA Meet in her freshman season. Behrens did not rest on last year’s laurel, but instead worked hard to better herself and her hard work was rewarded with a fantastic season.
Behrens quickly established herself as the top backstroker on the team and during the course of the season she set new school records in the 100 and 200 backstrokes (both long and short courses). Ever the team player, Behrens emphasized her top priority is to help the Gophers do well as a team.
“I came in a spot where they may be a little bit weaker in the backstroke area and I filled that spot,” Behrens said. “That’s what I came here for. I had a good freshman year and kind of grew into it and was rewarded for that. It’s less about me being the top backstroker. It’s more about being what I need to do for my team. I want to do well for myself but it’s for the team.”
Behrens certainly did her part in leading the Gophers to the Big 10 team championships. Behrens won the Big 10 crowns in both the 100 and 200 backstrokes in school record times, scored in the 50 free and swam on four relays that all placed third. Her effort sparked the Gophers to the team crown.
“I definitely got my money’s worth on that trip,” Behren said. “Winning the first and second Big 10 backstroke titles and winning as a team is incredible. I will remember that forever.”
Behrens knew she had a shot at the backstroke titles but did not expect to win both.
“I never would go into a race expecting to win,” she said. “I knew I had that ability and I knew I wanted it so badly and I knew I prepared for it. It all just came down to swimming my race and swimming the way I wanted to and I was able to do that and it paid off for me.”
Behrens’ effort in the Big 10 was reminiscence of the way she led the Maple Grove Crimson to the state championship in her sophomore season. She took second in the 100 backstroke and 50 free and swam on two relays that finished high and the Crimson went on to claim the school’s first state team championship.
“It is a little bit bigger stage at the Big 10, but it’s the same feeling that I had,” Behrens said. “Winning state in high school was for me at that time the big thing. Now in college being able to accomplish that goal at the Big 10 the same way I accomplished my goal in high school was exciting.”
Behrens went on to capture the state 100 backstroke championship in her senior season and joined the Gophers. Thus far, Behrens is thoroughly enjoying her college life.
“I am enjoying it very much. At this point I can’t see myself anywhere else,” she said. “I love it here. I’ve made some many new friends, friends I will have forever. I will be able to say the rest of my life that I am able to compete in Div. I athletics. I am so thankful I was given this opportunity. I love the coaches, love being around everybody. My dad doesn’t like it as much because I don’t come home much because I love it here so much.”
Behrens said she was received warmly as a freshman and that made her adjustment to the team very smooth.
“There were no problems fitting in. The team is great. They are so nice,” she said. “You are a Gopher. You are one of them. It’s a family atmosphere.”
Like most college freshmen, Behrens had to adjust to the transition from high school to college. The biggest adjustment is food. Instead of having all meals ready for her in high school, Behrens now is in charge of all her meals.
“I cook all my food. I am not on a meal plan,” Behrens said. “Dorm food is good but it’s not the most nutritious.”
Once Behrens found her comfort level in college, her swimming blossomed, with the help of the Gopher coaches and teammates.
“I have really strived. My teammates have supported and pushed me and I have supported and pushed them,” she said. “That’s the nice thing about swimming on a Big 10 team. You will have people at your level and also people a little bit better than you. You will always have someone there to push you to get to that next level. We have all benefited from being on a team like that. Once I got more comfortable after my freshman year I was able to make some changes, settle down in my group and figure out what kind of training I needed to optimize what I was doing. That really paid off for me and that’s why there is a big jump in the results.”
During the past season, Behrens also competed in a Grand Prix Meet at the U where Phelps, Lochte, Franklin and others competed. She also competed at the NCAA Meet in March.
Behrens is enjoying life at the U but admits the lifestyle of a college swimmer can be physically and mentally challenging. During the season, she participates in morning swim twice a week, does morning lifting three times a week and swims after school daily.
“It’s crazy and it can get overwhelming at times because you are up at 5,” she said. “But that’s something that helps us develop mental toughness and helps us get through everything.”
But there are perks. For their hard work, the Gophers are rewarded with an annual two-week winter training trip to Hawaii.
“The Hawaiian trip is usually the toughest two weeks of training we do all year,” she said. “It’s a nice way to go and get your training in and keep it light-hearted and fun. You are not bogged down on just working. There are other things to do like going to the beach. It’s definitely a perk.”
Bolstered by her great sophomore season and her experience at the NCAA and Olympic Trials, Behrens is looking ahead to bigger things to come in the future.
“The Big 10 meet is here next year and I want to come back and defend my backstroke titles in my own pool,” she said.
Beyond that she is looking to qualify for the World University Games in Russia next year and compete in US Open meets. In the long run, she is thinking about the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2016. Her experience this past summer gives her confidence she is very close to those elite swimmers and she has a desire to get to that level.
“I am getting there,” she said. “It’s all about finding new things I can do to make myself that much better. I am definitely working towards it with great coaches and teammates.”