Before a midseason practice last year at South View Middle School, Edina swimmer Rachel Wittmer crawled inside a line pit next to one of the lanes in the pool in hopes of lightening the mood. It is a gimmick she had used in the past to disappear from her coaches and get some laughs from her teammates.
Except this time, Edina coach Jeff Mace caught wind of her prank and decided to flip the script on his star swimmer by pouring cold water into the pit.
As the water splashed Wittmer, she let out a laughing cry. Teammates and coaches chuckled with her, and yet again, another Wittmer joke served its purpose.
It was a memorable moment in Mace’s longtime coaching career and one he cherishes. He captured it with a video on his phone.
“Whenever we need a laugh, Traci [Bergo], my assistant coach and I watch this,” Mace said with a laugh. “That is who Rachel is. She just has a great personality and is fun to be around.”
Wittmer has been laughing at practices and competitions since she began competitive swimming at age 8.
Her free spirit, dedication to her craft and elite talent have earned her five individual state titles and five relay championships. Wittmer is the three-time defending state champion in the 50-yard freestyle and the face of a Hornets girls’ swimming program that holds 12 state championships and will be well-represented at the state meet this week at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center.
Swimming for her teammates
Wittmer keeps things light to cope with a grueling schedule. She swims in the fall season with Edina and winters and summers with Aquajets, her club team. Throughout her aquatic success, she joked much of the way: from road trips to national competitions in Texas to arriving at a section meet last year with a boot on her foot, another one of her signature pranks. She swam and laughed her way up the 2017 national recruiting board and recently committed to Notre Dame.
But before she joins the Irish next fall, Wittmer and the Hornets are seeking their first state championship since 2012. Wittmer was an eighth-grader on that team.
“From the first day of practice we wrote on our team goal sheet to win state in all caps,” Wittmer said. “This group of girls has never won state, and if any year then this is the year to do it.”
Edina’s team goal sheet hangs on a wall near its practice pool. It serves as a constant reminder of what the Hornets are continually chasing. Despite her achievements, Wittmer is motivated by team success, not her individual triumphs.
Kate Lundsten, executive director and coach of Aquajets, has coached Wittmer the past five years and said she is the ultimate team player.
“When you are [swimming] for a greater purpose than just yourself you are going to be better,” Lundsten said. “Rachel gets that. She is swimming not only for herself or the kids on her relay teams but for Edina also.”
Under the tutelage of Lundsten, who coached Olympic gold medalist Rachel Bootsma, Wittmer has been a part of several national record-setting relays and was a finalist at the Speedo Junior Nationals last summer.
During the summer, Wittmer spends more time with Lundsten than she does her family, according to Wittmer’s mother, Lisa. Rachel Wittmer wakes up at 5:15 a.m. four times a week for pre-practice workouts before two hours of in-water training. The Aquajets leave for breakfast but return later for dryland training and two more hours in the water.
The demanding swimming schedule makes Wittmer and Lundsten a perfect player-coach combination. They know how to have fun, which is vital in a sport that consists of “looking at the bottom of a pool for hours,” Lundsten said.
Wittmer hones her skills with Lundsten’s Aquajets to succeed for Mace’s Hornets in the fall. She wouldn’t be the swimmer she is without either team or coach.
“Most people are lucky to have one good coach in their life,” Lisa Wittmer said. “She has two that both seem tailor-made for her.”
For Edina to knock off Wayzata, Rachel Wittmer and the Hornets will need to swim their best races of the season. Mace said he doesn’t want his swimmers looking past talented programs such as Stillwater or Minnetonka, while chasing Wayzata.
Regardless of how Wittmer ends her high school career and later her stint with Aquajets, she will go out as a swimmer missed and admired by teammates and coaches.
At Notre Dame, she will keep doing what got her through her swimming successes. Joking around whenever she can in what she calls her “love-hate relationship with the water.”
“This sport is difficult, but at the same time I don’t know what I’d do without swimming,” Wittmer said. “The relationships I have made through swimming with my coaches and teammates make this all worth it.”