Swimmers ready for Big Tens

By Courtney Linehan

Tonight’s competition in Bloomington, Ind., begins the toughest task swimming and diving has taken on this season.

With two relays tonight, the Big Ten championships get underway. It is the high point in the Illini’s season, as the team takes on one of the toughest conferences in the nation.

“This meet is all about momentum,” said head coach Sue Novitsky. “If you can get people swimming fast in those early heats, then you’ll be OK.”

The meet lasts five days and includes every Big Ten school. The Illini have already faced all but three conference opponents and struggle under a 1-6 Big Ten record, but the extended format and heightened pressure could throw in plenty of surprises.

“There’s people every year who are seeded 50th coming in and they’re top three (in the races),” Novitsky said.

Novitsky anticipates Illinois’ strongest strokes being breaststroke and freestlye. Senior Trisha Lakatos leads Illini breaststrokers and senior Kirsten Koepcke and sophomore Barbie Viney have been swimming well in the free races.

Two weeks ago at the Big Ten Quad Meet, Viney broke the school record in the 100 free, touching the wall in 50.26 seconds and earning an NCAA “B” cut time.

At Big Tens, Viney could also make an impact in breaststroke.

The key to Illinois’ success, however, will be the way it finishes in the relay events, where a team can earn a lot of its points.

“Our relays again are going to be huge,” Novitsky said. “We’re working on those a lot; most are not completely set yet.”

Wisconsin and Penn State are two of the toughest teams in the mix, Novitsky said. With seven top-25 teams in the Big Ten, the unranked Illini know they have a tough weekend ahead of them.

“Our conference is really strong,” Novitsky said. “Even some of the other teams that aren’t (ranked) could do a lot of damage.”

For Illinois, youth could prove to be a double-edged sword. Novitsky said the relatively inexperienced team could gain a lot of ground on adrenaline.

“They’ve all swum in championship meets before,” Novitsky said. “It’s just working with them so they keep their emotions in check. They need to learn how to harness that energy and use it to their advantage.”

Divers

As the divers complete the third phase of their training, coach Billy McGowan knows they are ready to face the toughest conference in the nation.

With Olympic athletes and coaches at the Big Ten championships, Illinois’ small squad will be up against some of the NCAA’s best athletes, but they’ve been preparing for it all season.

“It’s time to rock and roll,” McGowan said. “They’re ready. We’ve got them right where we planned.”

With only two divers – sophomore Jackie Bain and freshman Abbey Bernardo – and no platform to train on, Illinois is at a significant disadvantage. But McGowan is mostly worried about the divers’ nerves.

“Jackie’s seen all the teams, all the divers. The only thing I’d be worried about is that Abbey’s a freshman. It’s her first time in this kind of a meet,” he said.

Because so many top athletes are at the Big Tens, McGowan said he only expects the Illini to perform at their personal best and learn from the experience.

“I don’t want them to get nervous and tighten up,” he said. “You know we’re not going to win, so I don’t want them to worry too much.”

But he knows that a season of preparation has Illinois ready to go.

“It’s like a black-tie event; it’s what we’ve worked for all season long,” McGowan said.