Jan. 21, 2009
By Larry Watts
Records are meant to be broken. And at the rate they keep falling for the University of Minnesota women's swim team these days, they're leaving little time for the ink to dry.
For the past four years, Minnesota native Jenny Shaughnessy has been one of the keys in leading that assault on the Golden Gophers' record chart. As a junior last year, Shaughnessy was credited with three individual records and assisted in two others on relays as the Gophers collected their first Big Ten championship since back-to-back titles in 1999-00.
"It's really cool to see how this program has risen," says the six-time All-American and three-time first team All-Big Ten honoree. "By the end of last year, we had broken every school record and half of those records are already gone this year."
Shaughnessy was one of the key freshmen of the eight-member recruiting class brought in during the first season for co-head coaches Kelly Kremer and Terry Nieszner. Not only was she a five-time high school All-American, but she was also from nearby Rochester. One of the primary goals of the coaches has been to retain the home-grown talent pool.
"My family is terribly close, so I knew I was going to stay pretty close to home, but I wasn't expecting to stay this close," says Shaughnessy with a laugh. "But after I visited here, my decision was solidified because it was a perfect fit.
"I felt a real connection with the coaches. They tell you they want to do what is best for you both as an athlete and as a student, and they really mean it. Aside from my parents and teammates, they are the first ones I go to for advice. It's such a comfortable level being around them because they respect you as people first."
Her parents, William and Heidi, met as swimmers while attending St. Olaf College in Northfield. They attend every one of their daughter's meets.
"It's nice to know home is as close as you want it to be," she says. "I can have my space, but I can also see them on a regular basis. Plus, getting those baked goods from home isn't bad either."
Shaughnessy really did some cooking of her own in the water for Minnesota last year. At the Big Ten Championships, she won the 400 individual medley and was part of the championship 800 free relay. Then at the NCAA Championships, she took 12th in the 400 IM and was part of the 12th place 400 free relay and 13th place 800 free relay.
"Winning that first Big Ten title was awesome because it was the first with our coaches," she says. "Of course, you're always thinking about the NCAA Championships, but the Big Ten title was just icing on the cake and very rewarding in itself.
"We knew it was going to be a battle (with Michigan) and you never know how things will pan out due to injuries or disqualifications. But everything fell into place for us that weekend. We pulled ahead on the last day and stayed strong. It was just great to see the way we closed it out. It's not really hard to succeed when you have 40 other people pushing you to your maximum potential."
With the title, Shaughnessy knows her team has also painted a collective target on its back for the current season.
"I know we're not going to surprise anyone this year," she says with a laugh. "We're already ranked in the top 10 in the country and we're rated No. 1 in the Big Ten. It's a big challenge to defend the title, but we're not going to get overconfident."
Shaughnessy is held in such high regard in the Gophers' program that she was named a co-captain as a junior, an honor she also carries into her final season. But most of all, she is regarded as one of top recruiters for the program.
"I just try to keep everyone aware about the entire process when they visit and show them what actually happens behind the scenes," she says. "When they leave here, I make sure they understand what a great bond we have as a team. Your teammates become your new family and they are with you so much of the time because of all the traveling we do.
"The school actually sells itself. It's as big or as small as you want to make it, but your teammates certainly make it seem a lot smaller. You can become super involved with other things around here, but you will always be spending a lot of time with your team."
A three-time Academic All-American with a 3.8 GPA, Shaughnessy says her days of competitive swimming will probably end at this year's NCAA Championships. She is currently applying for medical school, hoping to do her post-graduate studies back at Minnesota.
"When I came here, I knew I was going to go into some health-related field," she says. "I was dabbling with the idea of nursing or physical therapy, but right now I think I would like to go into sports medicine.
"It's tough balancing the swimming with the academic load, but you can get by as long as you stay organized and are on top of things."
Away from the pool, Shaughnessy admits she loves to run and go biking, so the thought of entering triathlons isn't far-fetched.
"It's in the back of my mind," she says. "But there's an awful lot of training involved and I don't know if I could devote that much time with medical school. I really don't want to lose touch with the water and it's going to be hard separating myself from this team."