Follow the Leader
Dec. 19, 2007
by Jeff Smith
Wisconsin head women's swimming coach Eric Hansen believes a good leader must first be a good follower. During the past four years in Madison, Hansen has had both in senior Jackie Vavrek. A talented product out of West Chicago, Ill., one whom Hansen called his model recruit, Vavrek learned the ropes early by watching and following other swimmers such as 2004 Olympic gold medalist Carly Piper. But now it's her time to lead, and Hansen just hopes Vavrek's fellow Badgers are willing to follow.
A two-time All-American, Vavrek is one of just six seniors and nine upperclassmen on a team of 30. She remembers all to well the feeling of coming to Wisconsin as a freshman. She refers to her first year as being "at the bottom" and unsure of the expectations that lay ahead. Now, Vavrek's views form a different perspective.
"Being a leader of the team is a totally different experience," she said. "I see myself in some of the freshmen this year and I always try to help."
Swimming tends to be a sport that offers far greater rewards for an individual rather than the team. Vavrek admits that when she first came to Wisconsin, she wasn't used to the team atmosphere. It was about individual times and individual goals. Yet her time in Madison and her maturation as a leader has brought forth a different glimpse into the sport of she loves.
Two years ago marked the peak of the Badgers' swimming program when Wisconsin finished ninth overall at the NCAA Championships - the highest finish in school history. But last season was a different story. It was an ending that no one was prepared for. Wisconsin tied Princeton for 24th place with 36 points, marking UW's lowest finish at the national meet since finishing 26th in 1995.
Despite the team's finish, Vavrek turned in a solid performance. She finished 11th overall in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 22.48, which was just slower than her Big Ten Championship winning time of 22.41. Vavrek also placed 13th in the 200-yard medley relay (1:40.36), 16th in the 200-yard freestyle relay (1:31.14), 16th in the 400-yard medley relay (3:42.16), and 18th in the 400-yard freestyle relay (3:21.83).
"I had a good NCAA last year, but I felt disappointed because I thought our team deserved a better finish for how we trained," she said. "A top team finish is most important to me and I think we have some of the hardest workers in the country."
This year, not only is Vavrek looking to finish her career on a high note and qualify for the Olympic trials, but she is looking to help right the Badgers' ship with strong performances at Big Tens and NCAAs.
Her leadership this season has been both welcomed and applauded by Hansen.
"We are a very young team on both the men's and women's side," he said. "Jackie has been able to rally the team and point us in the right direction. She knows the struggles the kids will go through as they progress through the program. She has done a great job helping our young kids through those steps."
Hansen first learned of Vavrek through his assistant head coach Geoff Hanson. Not only did she bring Olympic potential, but she also brought a strong academic background to Madison, a combination Hanson said represented his "model recruit." In talking with Vavrek about her goals, Hansen could tell early on that she was well aware of what needed to be done to reach them.
"She knew she was talented, but she also knew what she had to do to let that talent shine," he said. "Her value has been the incredible leadership she has shown and her consistent work ethic. That's leadership without saying anything."
Vavrek credits much of her success to Hansen's teaching and the extra work he puts in each day. She talks about how he will be out jogging or running errands and think of drills to improve the technique of a particular swimmer. In fact, it's not uncommon for the drill to be named after the person it was designed for.
"Eric has been the integral part of my success," Vavrek said. "I wanted to go to a school where I could trust a coach and that's what I had the minute I came to Wisconsin. He's an interactive, hands-on type of coach that will even get in the water with you and work on your technique instead of explaining it to you from the deck."
In addition to her two All-America accolades, Vavrek has earned five honorable mention All-America distinctions, has twice been a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and owns the school record in the 200-yard free relay and 200-yard medley relay, as well as Big Ten record in 200-yard medley relay.
Much of those career achievements have come off relay teams, on which Vavrek said is an honor to compete. The conference record-breaking performance on the 200-yard medley relay was a "great experience" for Vavrek, primarily in part because she was able to share that record with three other teammates. In fact, she feels her individual success has stemmed from swimming so comfortably on the relays.
"Being on a Wisconsin relay is an honor," she said. "You know when you get to the blocks you're going to swim faster than you ever thought you could. It's all about coming together."
Vavrek is hopeful that her senior season will also come together with a national championship, which would be a school first, although she says a top-three finish would also do. She and Hansen have tweaked her personal training schedule this season with hopes of preparing her for the Olympic trials following the NCAA Championships. Everything from her training regiment to her conditioning has been "tailored" according to Hansen, who hopes to have another Olympian blossom from the Badger program.
"We continue to dial in her technique and feel like there are great things to come," he said.
Regardless of the outcome in the pool, Vavrek is focused on completing her degree in chemistry. She laughs when thinking back to initially pursuing a degree in chemical engineering, and now admits that even after changing her mind, she might still be the only Badger student-athlete on campus crazy enough to major in chemistry. She is contemplating continuing in school to earn her teacher's certificate or use her degree to become involved with the environment.
But then there's that whole Olympics thing too.
In the meantime, Vavrek will continue to train to her limits, enjoy the company with her relay teams, and turn to those freshmen "at the bottom" with words of encouragement when they need it most.
It's what leaders do.
Now all Hansen needs are a few new followers.