National exposure helps build excitement as start of the season nears
BY NICK CLARK
It was getting late, but Stephanie Weger couldn’t pull herself away.
Sleep was going to have to wait.
The sport of swimming was plastered all over the television in her family living room – and on countless others around the globe – in a showcase that every four years garners that type of attention.
Men and women of all ages watched in awe as the chase for Olympic gold unfolded in world-class facilities and under the weight of the world-like pressure.
But for those like Weger – high school swimmers priming themselves for the start of their season – it is the combination of everything involved in the event that puts the exclamation point behind their collective “Wow!”
“There is so much going on around them, and they stay so focused,” Weger said last week before the start of a girls swimming captains practice she was helping run for Champlin Park. “They are such an inspiration for all of us.”
The collective whole of Minnesota high school swimmers was on notice these last couple weeks. The Olympics can do that. Add a local into the mix, and it just heightens the must-watch sensation of the experience.
Minnesota had that this year, with Eden Prairie graduate Rachel Bootsma competing for the American women, and eventually claiming a Gold Medal as a member of the 400-meter medley relay team that qualified for the Olympic final.
For many high school swimmers, Bootsma has become the signature figure for them to rally around in Minnesota. Everybody seems to have a connection.
“It’s a small swimming community here, so a lot of these girls do know Rachel, or have swam against her,” said Osseo head girls swimming and diving coach Katie Grivna. “So they feel that connection when they see her on television.”
They also try to feel the same when they dive into the pool.
Bootsma is just a few months removed from her senior year at Eden Prairie. Missy Franklin, who won four Gold Medals in London, isn’t even that old.
Franklin will be a senior this year at Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, Colo., and she provides an automatic connection for high school swimmers in Minnesota.
“They see somebody like Missy Franklin, and it is just so easy for them to relate,” said Robbinsdale Cooper head coach Jennifer Steenerson.
“It shows them that even at that age with hard work and dedication and perseverance, those type of goals are attainable for girls their age.”
Steenerson said she asked her swimmers to watch the likes of Franklin, Bootsma or breaststroke world-record holder Rebecca Soni in the pool, imploring them to pay attention to the techniques each use in mastering the sport at its highest level.
She also asked that the swimmers watch how the athletes conducted themselves out of the pool, noting the correlation between both.
“It’s such a big part of what they do,” said Steenerson.
Added Champlin Park head coach Joe Thiel, “In this sport, you don’t usually have girls who have had big egos who are outstanding athletes. You see how Missy Franklin handled herself in interviews and in that spotlight, and it was well beyond her years. We want our swimmers to do the same. We want them to be the leaders of our school.”
In the pool, most already are. At Champlin Park, the girls swimming and diving team was in the thick of its captains practice season last week, hitting the pavement daily for a running session implemented by the captains to strengthen their muscles for the upcoming swim season.
Thiel said he wasn’t sure if the type of impact the national exposure his sport received from the Olympics would translate into more girls coming out from the team, admitting Olympic years generally mean greater participation numbers for the boys season in the winter.
Grivna said Osseo has is expecting as many as 15 additional swimmers on the team this year, while Steenerson noted that at Cooper, those wanting to get involved just from watching the Olympics usually trickle in during the first week or two of practice.
Regardless, the sport is in the midst of a jolt only the Olympics could provide, and it’s left the high school swimmers with a definite conversation piece as the start of the season nears.
“It’s all we talk about,” said Champlin Park senior captain Megan Pietruszewaki. “We are all watching it every night, and it has already motivated a lot of us to keep working harder and to be more focused once practice starts. We’re all excited to start, and I think the Olympics have a lot to do with that.”