Freshman trio sets new standard for Illinois swim & dive

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Sydney Laput

Freshman Liv Dorshorst swims to the end of the pool during a match against Indiana State on Oct. 8, 2022. Dirshirst, a newcomer to the Illini broke the record for the university’s swim team 1650 relay earning seventh-place.

By Theo Gary, Staff Writer

It’s been a rough decade for Illinois swim & dive. The Illini haven’t finished better than second to last in the Big Ten since the 2013–2014 season. For a program with so little recent success, it’s strange to see a coach stick around as long as the former head coach Sue Novitsky did.

She coached Illinois’ swimmers for 28 years, first as a volunteer assistant in 1994 and then as an assistant coach in 1997. Before the 2000–2001 season, she got the full-time gig. Novitsky left last spring after 21 years with the most Illinois swim wins of all time and a losing record — 114-120-2 — attributable more to longevity than anything.

Novitsky’s last recruiting class provides a counter-weight to a tenure that could be measured as successful or unsuccessful depending on one’s point of view; all 22 of Novistky’s teams were either excellent or superior in their team GPA, as rated by the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America. The freshmen that she signed — Jillian Wilson, Liv Dorshorst, Sara Jass and Alexis Wendel — have all made a substantial impact on the team. 

Already as freshmen and all in the same meet, Dorshorst, Jass and Wendel broke Illinois records. Jass finished with the second-fastest backstroke in Illinois history, Wendel swam the fifth-fastest 200m butterfly, and Dorshorst finished with the seventh-best 1650 relay.

But these swimmers now swim for coach Jeana Kempe who got the job after Novitsky’s retirement. She came in, and things have changed. Not that Illinois is winning a lot so far — they aren’t — but things have changed internally. Team culture, that phrase every college coach slobbers over, that’s different.

“We actually had a team retreat at the beginning of the season where we talked about goals for the season.” Jass said. “And one of the major goals was team positivity. I think the leaders on the team were able to start that, and everyone followed.”

Positivity, while helpful, doesn’t win meets on its own. But coupled with new training, new workouts and a new process — that’s where visible in-the-water changes happen.

“Everyone just feels stronger,” Jass said. “The training’s a lot different from what they’ve done in the past. Coach Jeana and Kyle have brought some new aspects to training … It’s very specific training that they know what they need for each person. So I think that’s really helped each person improve individually, because the coaches know what they need to succeed.”

Training isn’t just more targeted; practices are longer and more intense, a better preparation for the grueling three or four day meets swim & dive routinely competes in.

“We’ve been doing a lot longer practices,” Dorshorst said. “The other day we did an 8K practice.”

Because of this training, the swimmers are pushed out of their comfort zones, are more positive and getting better.

“Everyone’s just really motivated to get better,” Dorshorst said. “So we all push each other, because we want to get better as a team.”

The next level, like in any other college sport, requires high-level recruiting. And Kempe has already signed a class of her own: 11 swimmers, some from Illinois, some from out of state and some from countries as distant as Slovakia.

Illinois has a unique advantage. The top recruit in the 2022 cycle according to swimcloud.com, Carly Novelline, attended New Trier high school in Wilmette, Ill., in the northern suburbs of Chicago. And Dorshorst, who according to the same service was the seventh-best recruit in Illinois, is from Killdeer, Ill., just west of Chicago. Jass is from Geneva, Ill., northwest of that same city, and Wendel went to New Trier too.

If you’re sensing a pattern, there is one: the Chicago suburbs produce a ton of talented swimmers.

“Illinois, as a state, is one of the best states at swimming,” Dorshorst said. “And I think a lot of people who live in Illinois have connections to (the University), which makes people want to go here. So I feel like that’s really nice. And I feel like the swim community is kind of small, and we all know each other. So they see some people going to Illinois, and then other people want to go.”

Jass, whose father attended Illinois, had just that sort of family connection.

“My dad went to Illinois and (so did) a lot of my extended family,” Jass said. “And so I was really looking here for sure. And then when I came here on my visit, I really fell in love with the campus and the girls on the team who were all super welcoming. You can tell, they really just wanted this team to become better, to succeed. I think that really drew me in.”

New practices, new players, a new culture — it’s all new for Illinois swim & dive. What comes of that? Only time will tell, but it’s bound to be better than a decade in the Big Ten basement.

“I see the team just growing up,” Dorshorst said. “Our recruits coming in next year were really good. I just feel like it’s going to keep on going up especially if our team keeps the same energy and passion.”

 

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