Oct. 7, 1999
NOTRE DAME, Ind. —It has been a long wait for Notre Dame women’s swimming coach Bailey Weathers and his squad. After winning its third consecutive BIG EAST Championship and sending a school-record eight swimmers and divers to the ’99 NCAA Championships in Athens, Ga., Notre Dame was ready to make its move into the national spotlight. But that light was dimmed just a touch as the Irish did not swim as well as they hoped at the NCAA meet, finishing 28th with 15 points. As disappointing as the NCAA meet was for Weathers and the team, it has provided an added incentive to the 1999-2000 squad as it hopes the old saying proves true this year.
“We have been looking forward to this season since the end of the NCAA meet,” says Weathers. “We felt we were a lot better team than we showed at NCAAs. We sent eight athletes to NCAAs last year and everyone gained valuable experience that will help them this year. We were a young team so any experience like the NCAA meet can only make us better in the future. We have high goals and expectations for this year.”
The experience and expectations start with the senior class of Elizabeth Barger, Gina Ketelhohn, Alison Newell, Rhiana Saunders, Laura Shepard and Shannon Suddarth. The class of ’00 is Weathers’ first graduating recruiting class. Each athlete has made huge contributions either academically or athletically to the University and the program during her Notre Dame career.
Barger, a nine-time BIG EAST champion, has more conference championships than any other Notre Dame athlete in swimming and diving history. Barger earned honorable mention All-America status at the ’99 NCAA meet and was named a ’99 All-Academic selection. Ketelhohn advanced to the NCAA Zone diving meet in ’99 and was named honorable mention All-Academic, while Newell earned honorable mention All-America honors in ’97 as a freshman in the 200 butterfly and is a two-time BIG EAST champion.
Saunders was the 1999 winner of the Notre Dame Distinguished Student Award, while Shepard earned All-Academic honors last season, as well as winning the BIG EAST title as part of the 200 free relay. Suddarth is Notre Dame’s most decorated swimming and diving athlete in NCAA competition as she earned All-America honors in the 100 breaststroke in 1998, and honorable mention All-America status four other times in her illustrious career. Suddarth is also a four-time BIG EAST champion and earned All-Academic honors in 1999.
“I am so proud of our six seniors,” says Weathers. “It has been fun to see how much they have grown the past three years. They are great leaders and have gained valuable experience being part of the team. Each has accomplished so much in her first three years at Notre Dame and they have the chance to become the first group of athletes in Notre Dame history to be BIG EAST champions all four years.”
That leadership will lead what Weathers feels is his most balanced team since his arrival at Notre Dame. The Irish are strong in every event, running three, four and sometimes five swimmers deep in the majority of the events. What is also unique to this year’s team is the balance carries over to each class as the freshmen are as strong as the seniors and should make major contributions this year.
“We have focused on balance while recruiting and it is paying off for us,” Weathers says. “We are able to depend on each class equally and that depth should make us a better team this year. We are expecting some big things.”
The backstroke events are the biggest question mark for Bailey Weathers and the Irish this season. Notre Dame will be without the services of junior Allison Vendt who may be lost for the season after having shoulder surgery over the summer. Vendt placed fourth in the 200 backstroke at the 1998 BIG EAST Championships as a freshman before missing most of last year with the shoulder injury.
Having to carry the loss of Vendt on her back, literally, is Kelly Hecking, who earned All-America honors swimming the lead-off leg of the 400 medley relay team that placed 11th at the ’99 NCAA Championships. She also won four BIG EAST titles in her initial campaign, including the 100 backstroke and three relays crowns, while setting four Notre Dame and three conference records in the process.
Helping Hecking is junior Tiffany O’Brien who will be counted on to step right into Vendt’s place. O’Brien was an all-BIG EAST selection after placing second in the 200 backstroke her freshman season. O’Brien also swam the lead-off leg of the 1997 BIG EAST champion 400 medley relay team.
Weathers also hopes freshman Nicole Davis of Granger, Ind., can step in and add depth to the backstrokers. Davis earned all-conference honors all four years at Penn High School and set the school record in the 100 backstroke.
“Kelly comes in as our best backstroker, but with Allison Vendt being injured it is going to put a huge burden on Kelly and Tiffany to carry the stroke for us,” says Weathers. “Both have been BIG EAST Champions and we are confident that they will get the job done for us. We also hope that Nicole Davis can step in and help us this year.”
The breaststroke should be Notre Dame’s best event this season with the return of four-time All-American Shannon Suddarth, junior Kathleen Rimkus and sophomore Allison Lloyd. Suddarth has the opportunity to be the first person to earn All-America status all four years at Notre Dame. A four-time BIG EAST champion, Suddarth holds the BIG EAST and Notre Dame records in the 100 and 200 breaststroke events, as well as swimming the breaststroke leg on the BIG EAST record-setting 400 medley relay team.
Rimkus was named most improved swimmer last season for the Irish as she swam to an NCAA “B” qualifying time in the 100 breaststroke at the BIG EAST Championships. Rimkus also earned honorable mention All-Academic honors last season. Lloyd qualified in both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events at the NCAA Championships, placing in the top 20 in both events. She also earned all-BIG EAST honors after placing second in the 100 and 200 breaststroke races to Suddarth and fifth in the 200 individual medley. She holds the fifth-fastest 100 breaststroke and seventh-fastest 200 breaststroke times in Notre Dame history.
Added to the fold this year is freshman Kerry White who placed first at the South African Inter-High School championships in the 100 and 200 breaststroke and was a consolation finalist at the South African Olympic Trials.
“We probably had the second best group of breaststrokers in the country last year behind Georgia,” Weathers said. “We have always had so much consistency in our breaststrokers and this year should be no different.”
NCAA All-Americans Elizabeth Barger and Alison Newell lead the butterfliers, as this is another solid event for the Irish. Barger is looking for her fourth consecutive BIG EAST 100 butterfly title, as well as trying to place in the top 16 at the NCAA meet. Barger holds the BIG EAST and Notre Dame record in the 100 butterfly and the 200 and 400 medley relay events. Newell, a two-time BIG EAST champion, holds the Notre Dame record in the 200 butterfly.
Senior Laura Shepard, junior Carrie Nixon and sophomore Tara Riggs will also contribute points in these events. Shepard will concentrate more on freestyle this season but can swim butterfly if necessary. Nixon, Notre Dame’s most valuable performer in ’99, placed third in the 100 butterfly at the ’99 BIG EAST Championships and was 24th at the 1999 Phillips 66 Senior Nationals. Riggs was Notre Dame’s third-best butterflier in the 200 race last season.
Weathers also expects promising things from freshmen Amy Deger and Meghan Lynch. Deger, from Pittsburgh, Pa., is a U.S. Senior National qualifier in the 100 butterfly and a junior national qualifier in the 200 butterfly and the 200 and 400 individual medley events. She earned all-state honors four years at Oakland Catholic High School while winning seven regional titles and two state championships. Lynch of Huntsville, Ala., was the 1997 junior national champion in the 100 butterfly and was a four-year all-state selection.
“We are extremely solid in the butterfly events,” says Weathers. “With Elizabeth and Alison, we have two women who have qualified for the NCAAs. That is a big plus and their leadership will help with the younger swimmers. Meghan and Amy will step in and challenge Elizabeth and Alison. They may not beat them this season, but I expect them to pick up right where Elizabeth and Alison leave off next year. I would not be surprised if we finish one through four at the BIG EAST Championships in the butterfly events.”
Notre Dame will feature All-American and five-time BIG EAST champion Carrie Nixon in the sprint freestyle races. Nixon holds six Notre Dame and five BIG EAST records, including the 50 and 100 freestyle. She has qualified for 11 races at the NCAA Championships during her first two seasons at Notre Dame.
Senior Laura Shepard, and sophomores Brooke Davey and Kelly Hecking will also have a major impact on the sprint freestyle races. Shepard swam the final leg on the BIG EAST Champion 200 freestyle relay team that set a school and BIG EAST record and posted the second-fastest 100 freestyle time last season by an Irish swimmer. Davey, who was a finalist at the 1996 United States Olympic trials in the 50 freestyle, swam the third leg on the 200 free relay team. She also placed fifth in the 50 free at the ’99 Big East Championships. Hecking swam the opening leg on the 200 freestyle relay teams that set BIG EAST and Notre Dame records last season.
“We have five swimmers who can swim under 23 seconds in the 50 free, led by Carrie Nixon,” says Weathers. “Laura Shepard is our most consistent and dependable performer on the relays and she swims the anchor legs for that reason. Brooke Davey, Kelly Hecking and Brenda Reilly will also bring a lot of speed to these events.”
Freshmen Liane Watkins of Austin Texas,will challenge the veterans for starts off the blocks. Watkins was a 10-time high school All-American and four-time all-state selection. She won the Texas state championship in the 50 and 100 free races in 1998 and is the regional recordholder in both events.
“We have a great group of sprinters and my most difficult task all year will be deciding which four will swim the 200 medley relay. We have so much talent in the sprints and it might be a situation where I might change it on a daily basis.”
Maureen Hillenmeyer and Kristen Van Saun will be the heart and soul of the middle distance events. Hillenmeyer swam the second leg of the 400 free relay that set the Notre Dame school record last season, while Van Saun qualified for the NCAA meet in the 200 and 500 freestyle races and as a member of the 200 freestyle relay team. She was also runner-up in the 500 freestyle and third in the 200 freestyle at the 1999 BIG EAST meet.
Sophomore Tara Riggs will lead the distance freestyle troops as she posted NCAA “B” qualifying times in the 500 and 1650 freestyle races and was an alternate at the NCAA meet in the 1650. Riggs placed third in the 500 free and fifth in the 1650 free at the BIG EAST meet. She also recorded the top time for the Irish in the 1650 freestyle.
Riggs will be joined by a talented group of freshman swimmers who will immediately be asked to fix a weakness that appeared when the Irish lost the 800 free relay at the BIG EAST Championships. Katie Cavandini of South Bend, Ind., Nicole Kohrt of Granger, Ind., and Lindsay Moorhead, of Carefree, Ariz., will be competing for positions on the 800 free relay team, as well as the longer races. Cavandini broke the 200 freestyle city record held by former Minnesota swimmer Kim Wilson last year and was a four-time all-conference selection. Kohrt was the Wisconsin state champion in the 500 freestyle before moving to Granger her senior year. Kohrt set 13 school records in high school and was nationally ranked all four years. Moorhead placed seventh at the 1998 U.S. Long Course Junior Nationals in three events and set regional records in the 200 and 500 freestyle events in 1997 and 1998.
The Irish should be deep in the individual medley events as Weathers has a choice of five or six people that he can use throughout the season. Shannon Suddarth swam Notre Dame’s fastest time in the 200 individual medley last season, but Elizabeth Barger, Alison Newell, Kelly Hecking and Carrie Nixon will also swim the shorter race. In the 400 individual medley, Tiffany O’Brien swam the fastest time in ?99 and will team with juniors Maureen Hillenmeyer and Kristen Van Saun in providing the Irish much needed depth in this race. With the addition of the freshman class in the freestyle races, Hillenmeyer and Van Saun will be able to concentrate more on the longer IM races.
“The nice thing about having good stroke people is that they swim the individual medleys well,” says Weathers. “We are real confident in our individual medley swimmers.”
Head diving coach Caiming Xie is deeper than ever in 1999-2000 as this could be the year three Notre Dame divers qualify for the NCAA meet. The divers are led by sophomore Heather Mattingly, who became the first diver in Notre Dame history to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Mattingly had an excellent freshman season as she placed 18th in both the one and three-meter board at the NCAA meet. She also was named all-BIG EAST as she was the runner-up in the three-meter board and placed third in the one-meter event. Mattingly shattered every Notre Dame school record last season and is looking to move into All-America status at the NCAA meet.
Weathers and Xie expect this to be the year for senior Gina Ketelhohn to make the NCAA field. An NCAA Zone qualifier last year, Ketelhohn placed fifth at the BIG EAST meet on the one-meter board and seventh on the three-meter event. She has worked extremely hard this summer and should make a strong challenge for the national meet in 2000.
The third diving spot should be a battle as any one of four divers could claim that distinction this season. After missing the ’98 fall season studying abroad in England, senior Rhiana Saunders only saw action in two meets last season. Junior Jessica Johnstone qualified for the NCAA Zone meet last year in both the one- and three-meter events after placing 11th on one meter and 10th in three meter at the BIG EAST Championships. Rounding out the divers are juniors Fran McCoppin and Karli Richards. McCoppin dove in only one meet last season, the Rainbow Invitational, where she was second in the one-meter board, while Richards qualified for the NCAA Zone meet her freshman season.
“We are extremely deep in diving this year,” Weathers says. “It will not be an easy task to know who our best three divers are on any given day. Our women can challenge and be as good as Heather any day. It is a unique opportunity to train in a setting where they can be pushed each day. We are looking forward to doing well in diving.”