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Fall Sports Previews – Women’s Swimming: Wildcats aim to build on last season’s improvement

Fall Sports Previews – Women’s Swimming: Wildcats aim to build on last season’s improvement
(Daily file photo by Daniel Tian)

Northwestern improved handsomely last season, its first under coach Abby Steketee.

After taking 10th at the 2014 Big Ten Championships –– the team’s lowest finish since 1983 –– the Wildcats scored more than three times as many points in 2015’s edition to finish eighth overall.

At Big Tens, NU was led by then-freshman diver Olivia Rosendahl who finished second in platform diving and went on to place fourth in the event at the NCAA Diving Championships.

The Cats also saw phenomenal swims from then-junior Melissa Postoll, who broke school records in the 200-yard backstroke and the 200-yard individual medley. Postoll wasn’t NU’s fastest swimmer in the 200 IM last season prior to the championship, but she smashed her personal best in the event during a morning preliminaries session and returned that evening to capture the school record.

Since that breakout meet at Big Tens, Postoll has been on a tear, qualifying for semifinals in the 200-meter backstroke at U.S. Olympic Trials, ultimately finishing 14th overall in the event.

Then-junior Annika Winsnes was the only other NU swimmer to compete in an individual championship final at Big Tens last season, where she swam a season-best 49.41 seconds to finish seventh in the 100-yard freestyle.

The Cats will return most of last year’s team for their 2016-17 campaign after losing only five seniors to graduation. In addition, their incoming freshman class has already been tested at swimming’s highest levels.

The Class of 2020 includes Sandra Freeman and Krystal Lara, both of whom competed at U.S. Olympic Trials in June, and Valerie Gruest Slowing, who earned the right to represent Guatemala in the 800 meter freestyle at the 2016 Olympic Games.

Slowing holds a dozen Guatemalan national records in freestyle and butterfly events, including the records for every long course freestyle distance except 50 meters.

Wilimovsky, Slowing represent Northwestern in Rio

Wilimovsky, Slowing represent Northwestern in Rio
(Daily file photo by Brian Lee)

In 2012, Northwestern’s headline Olympian was a 6-foot-8 swimmer, Matt Grevers, whose specialty event took less than a minute.

The top Wildcat at the 2016 Games is also a swimmer, but Jordan Wilimovsky is a skinny 5-foot-10 man and the defending world champion in a race that lasts nearly two hours.

Wilimovsky, a rising senior who took the 2015-16 school year off from NU to focus on Olympic preparation, will represent the United States in both the 1500-meter freestyle — the longest event in the pool — and the 10-kilometer open water event, in which he won the 2015 world championship.

Incoming freshman swimmer Valerie Gruest Slowing will represent Guatemala in the 800-meter freestyle and potentially other events.

Wilimovsky, who began swimming at age 9 after failing a swim test at a summer camp, had a breakout year in 2015. He won the Big Ten title in the 1,650-yard freestyle, then finished third at the NCAA Championships in the same event. Less than a month later he won the national championship in the 10K event, his first senior national title of any kind.

He then won the 10K world title in Russia in July of that year, qualifying him for the U.S. Olympic team in the event. In July of 2016, he swam a personal best time in the 1,500 free to finish second at the U.S. Olympic Trials and earn a berth in that event as well. Wilimovsky, 22, will become the first American to swim in both the pool and the open water at the Olympics.

Slowing enters the games with a considerably less decorated résumé. Though she owns 12 Guatemalan national records, her 800 free time of 8 minutes, 33.28 seconds makes her just the 44th fastest swimmer in that event this year.

The 800 free is the only event Slowing has directly qualified for. However, because she has hit the Olympic “B” standard in the 200- and 400-meter freestyles and no other Guatemalan swimmers have qualified in those events, she could swim them if she chooses.

The four-time Olympic gold medalist Grevers, meanwhile, did not make the U.S. team. He finished third at the Olympic trials in his signature event, the 100-meter backstroke, despite swimming the fourth fastest time of 2016.

No other current or former Wildcats are set to compete in Rio. Fencer Juliana Barrett, a 2016 graduate, won an African Olympic qualifier to represent South Africa in the games, but was not named to the Olympic team because South Africa’s Olympic committee did not consider the continental qualification mechanism satisfactory to compete in Rio.