Kierra Smith grew up in Canada, paying little attention to Big Ten sports, so it’s taken her a while to grasp the significance of the recent Gophers swimming and diving accomplishments.
The Gophers won their third consecutive Big Ten title Saturday night at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center, riding the strength of several big performances, and none bigger than Smith’s.
The sophomore from Kelowna, B.C., won the 200-yard breaststroke Saturday after winning the 100 breaststroke one night earlier.
“This is the most pride I’ve ever felt,” Smith said. “I’m so happy to be a Gopher. I’m so glad I had the team and the hometown crowd here.”
Like last year, there wasn’t much suspense in the team competition, as the Gophers racked up 760 points, well ahead of second-place Indiana (649) and third-place Penn State (484).
“We’ve been fortunate,” the Gophers’ Kelly Kremer said shortly before being named Big Ten Coach of the Year. “I had a couple coaches come up and say, ‘To do this three times in this conference is really incredible.’”
The Gophers won 10 of 21 events last year to win the event by 160 points. This year, they won just five events but pulled away with their depth.
Besides Smith, the Gophers took home titles in 3-meter diving (Maggie Keefer), platform diving (Sarah McCrady) and the 800 freestyle relay (Tori Simenec, Lauren Votava, Jessica Plant and Kiera Janzen).
Keefer was named Big Ten Co-Diver of the Championships, along with Purdue’s Casey Matthews. Wisconsin’s Ivy Martin took home Big Ten Swimmer of the Year honors after winning the 50 and 100 freestyle.
Minnesota received some key second-place finishes from Sam Harding (500 and 1,650 freestyle), Becca Weiland (50 freestyle), Plant (200 freestyle), Keefer (1-meter diving) and in the 400 freestyle relay (Votava, Weiland, Erin Caflisch and Blake Zeiger).
“The team championships are about a team effort, and everybody got involved to make this happen,” Kremer said.
Smith is the latest in a line of breaststroke champions for the Gophers. Jillian Tyler won four Big Ten titles in the 100, and Haley Spencer won three conference titles in the 200. Those two also claimed NCAA titles along the way.
When told that the Gophers have now had a breaststroke champion at seven consecutive Big Ten meets, Smith said, “I wasn’t aware of that until I read it yesterday. I was like, ‘I’m glad I didn’t mess that up.’”
Smith said she picked Minnesota because of the success Tyler had, coming from Didsbury, Alberta to the Gophers and eventually the Olympics.
“She’s someone I always looked up to growing up in Canada,” Smith said. “So following in her footsteps was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”