Palo Alto Weekly

Sports - February 12, 2010

Stanford seniors get a final chance to make another big splash in swim dual against Cal

by Rick Eymer

Stanford women's swimming coach Lea Maurer sees a lot of Jenny Thompson in senior Julia Smit. Maurer should know; she swam with the most-decorated female swimmer in Olympic history when both were at Stanford.

Smit, an Olympian in her own right and world recordholder to boot, embodies many of the same characteristics that made Thompson so successful.

"The best way I can explain it is telling a story about accountability," Maurer said Wednesday as the fourth-ranked Cardinal (4-0, 8-0) prepared for its final dual meet of the regular season, a Senior Day extravaganza with visiting California at 1 p.m. Saturday in the annual Big Splash.

"We were swimming on a relay team together and after I finished my leg I looked up at the clock," Maurer said. "It was my first American record and I glanced up for maybe three seconds. Jenny starts yelling at me, 'get up and cheer!' We just set a record and she was still focused on the team effort.

"There's no question Jenny carried the banner for Stanford relays," Maurer said. "She always got the job done. Julia is part of my first recruiting class and she has definitely carried the banner for us since her freshman year. She's accountable every Monday morning at 6 a.m. after a hard weekend or when others might want to give in; her attitude emboldens the rest of the team not to give in."

Smit is easily the most-honored Stanford swimmer since Thompson, and has rewritten the school's record books like no other.

Smit currently leads the nation with the fastest times in the 200 IM (1:55.45) and 400 IM (4:03.31), while junior Kelsey Ditto sets the pace in the 1650 free (9:46.80).

Smit, fellow senior and Olympian Elaine Breeden and seven others will be swimming in a college dual meet for the last time.

"It's gotten more interesting than I remember it being," said Maurer, who never lost to Cal as a swimmer and is 3-1 against the Bears as a coach. "It was more of a qualifying meet for the NCAA and we'd look toward the Pac-10 championships. It will be an intense battle and I understand more than 80 parents, family and friends will be in attendance."

Junior Kate Dwelley, one of the tri-captains with Smit and Breeden, said the week leading up to the Cal meet is exciting not only because of the natural rivalry but because "it means the beginning of the championship season," she said. "We definitely want to be beat Cal and carry that into the Pac-10 and the NCAA. When we get to Cal, we know it's almost there."

Dwelley, one of Stanford's top swimmers who generally is overshadowed by her fellow captains. That's just fine with her.

"I like to be a little under the radar," she said. "I like being the underdog and surprising people."

Dwelley is a valuable member of Stanford's relay teams as well as being a top-notch performer in the freestyle. She may have even blown her cover by winning the 200 free over USC sophomore Katinka Hosszu last weekend in addition to winning both the 50 free and 100 free events.

Dwelley's 200 free time of 1:46.19 set the McDonald's Stadium pool record. Hosszu held the previous mark. Hosszu is a two-time Olympian from Hungary and was a gold medalist at the World Championships.

Cal's Sara Isakovic, an Olympic silver medalist from Slovakia, ranks second nationally in the 200 free with a 1:44.95.

Dwelley could be competing against Palo Alto grad Liv Jensen in both the 50 free and 100 free. Former Vikings' star Colleen Fotsch swims the 100 fly and 100 back for the Bears.

"Kate had a breakthrough meet at USC," Maurer said. "She's really grown into her captain's shoes and she's been asked to lead."

Dwelley, one of four juniors, embraces her role as a leader. After all, he said, she learned from Smit.

"It's a lot of fun," she said. "When I came in as a freshman, Julia and Elaine took me under their wing and I learned a lot from them. It's my turn to implement those things. Before the 200 free at USC, Julia took me aside and told me the (medley) relay 'took a lot out of me. I need your help here.' "

Ditto transferred to Stanford this year from Georgia and it didn't take her long to get caught up in the rivalry with Cal.

"Depending on the meet, I might have a time in mind or a different race strategy," she said. "Against Cal, the goal is to win. I don't care what my time is as long as I hit the wall first. It's the one meet I have been looking forward to, especially since they are the defending national champions."

Ditto originally chose Georgia and an academic scholarship over Stanford and an athletic scholarship. She had been accepted at Stanford, but was attracted to Georgia because of its national prominence in the sport. The Bulldogs have won four national titles and are favored to win No. 5 this year. They have finished second or better in eight of the past nine seasons.

Ditto, a native of Austin, Texas, has earned one of the 891 All-American honors in Georgia history.

Her decision to transfer to Stanford was based on academic and social reasons.

"It's a lot better fit here," she said. "I'm happier outside the pool."

Ditto gives Stanford depth in the distance races, although she acknowledges that she'd rather do the 50 free.

"I've just always been a distance swimmer," she said. "I do enjoy the longer races where you get into a rhythm and can almost loose yourself. I like the feeling of a longer race."

The Stanford women have won eight NCAA titles, but none since 1998 when Olympian Misty Hyman was on the team. The Cardinal has never finished lower than sixth in the 29-year history of the NCAA meet, and that happened only once. In 23 of those 29 years, Stanford has finished among the top three.

Emotions will run high Saturday as Stanford salutes its seniors.

"I'll try not to get too sad," Maurer said. "We try to stay focused on the present. We can worry about everything else when the 400 free relay is over in March."

Training has just entered its "purgatory" period, when swimmers are beginning to taper and start resting for the bigger meets down the line.

"Your body starts to feel different and you can get nervous about how you're feeling," Maurer said. "But the enthusiasm of this meet is palpable and generates its own energy. We're confident as a dual-meet team and the goal is to carry that into the championship season."

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