Sometimes, the best teachers are not innate masters of their craft. Gophers swim coach Kelly Kremer, who excelled in the backstroke during his competitive career, freely admits he couldn’t swim the breaststroke to save his life.
It might seem unlikely that Kremer became a savant of that stroke. But he has created a women’s breaststroke dynasty at the U, one that is experiencing another changing of the guard this season. This week, senior Kierra Smith will try for her third sweep in the 100- and 200-yard breaststroke at the Big Ten championships, while freshman Lindsey Horejsi will pursue her first conference title as the meet begins Wednesday at Purdue.
Smith took last season off to train for the Rio Olympics, where she represented Canada in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. In her final season with the Gophers, she has mentored Horejsi, just as previous Gophers stars Jillian Tyler and Haley Spencer passed their knowledge to their successors. To Kremer, now in his 20th season at the U, that devotion means as much as the 14 Big Ten titles and three NCAA championships his swimmers have won in the women’s breaststroke since 2008.
“When you’re going to be really great at something, you’re always learning from someone else,’’ Kremer said. “We’ve been lucky to continue to have mentors showing the way. When Haley and Jill were finishing their careers, we had Kierra picking up the torch, and now she’s passing it on.
“We’ve been lucky to get athletes who have really bought in to what we do. If you have the right people to work with, then those people buy in, you can find success pretty quickly.’’
All four of the Gophers’ NCAA titles in swimming events have come in the breaststroke. Gretchen Hegener won the 100 breast in 1997. The Gophers swept the breaststroke events in 2011, with Tyler winning the 100 and Spencer capturing the 200, and Smith won the 200 breaststroke in 2015.
Kremer began his Gophers career as an assistant with the men’s program in 1998. He was assigned to coach the breaststrokers, and given his lack of expertise, he sought help from everyone who could offer advice. “The desire to not be a bad coach was a powerful motivator,’’ Kremer said, laughing. “I was doing everything I could to learn the stroke.’’
Smith came to the U in 2012, drawn by the success of Tyler and Spencer. She described herself as “very naïve’’ when she arrived, before Kremer taught her the discipline and work ethic required to be an elite swimmer. A four-time Big Ten champion and three-time All-America, Smith owns school breaststroke records in the 200-yard (2 minutes, 4.56 seconds) and 200-meter (2:22.82) distances and was the 2015 Big Ten swimmer of the year.
Smith enters the Big Ten meet seeded second to Olympic gold medalist Lilly King of Indiana in both the 200 breast (2:05.83) and the 100 breast (59.29). Horejsi, of Albert Lea, is seeded third in the 100 (59.41) and fifth in the 200 (2:10.05). After breaking the national high-school record in the 100 breast at the 2015 state high school meet, she credits Smith’s tutelage with helping her adjust to college swimming.
“I’m very fortunate to have an Olympian to swim next to every day,’’ Horejsi said. “It’s been a huge asset for me. It’s been awesome to look at her technique and compare strokes, seeing what can make you go faster and trying to beat one another in the pool.’’
That relationship will continue after the Big Ten meet. Smith and Horejsi have both qualified for the NCAA championships in March, and Smith plans to continue training with the Gophers coaches toward the 2020 Summer Games.
“I came here because I was inspired by [Tyler and Spencer],’’ Smith said. “And it’s exciting to know that Lindsey gets to carry on the tradition for another four years. We’re really proud of what the Gophers have done.’’