Recent University of Minnesota graduate Jessica Plant, like many of those around her, embodies the true meaning of “student-athlete.” As a Gophers swimmer, she was a three-time All-America and helped the program win four consecutive Big Ten championships. In the classroom, she graduated with a 4.0 grade-point average and is slated to begin graduate school at Cornell in the fall. As a result of her work in and out of the pool, this past week she was named the Big Ten Conference’s nominee for the 2015 NCAA Woman of the Year. Plant — a native of Winnipeg — took time to chat with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand.
Q How were you able to balance the demands of Division I sports with academic accomplishments that include a perfect GPA and a double-major in art history and classical civilizations?
A I think it really boils down to balance. I was surrounded by people who had the same goals as I did. I lived with four swimmers as a freshman, and we all had the mind-set that we had to go to class and we had to be the best we could be in the pool. … I honestly really do love school. Coming to the university, I was just so excited to learn.
Q But I imagine that requires a lot of commitment and sacrifice, right?
A The biggest struggle was getting enough sleep. You ask so much of your body and it’s mentally draining, too. I would go to practice, go to class, and in between classes do as much homework as I could, then go to practice, eat dinner and do as much as I could. I had the privilege of living with three of my best friends, and having that social structure at home was great. I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing that aspect.
Q What led you down the path of your specific majors?
A I had always been really interested in history and natural history, but then I took some art classes that I really clicked with. I really liked the aspect of learning about history and civilizations. I was just really drawn to it. It was definitely interest-driven. I wasn’t really thinking of exactly what I’d be doing in five years.
Q Does it ever bother you that the swimming and diving team, along with similar teams full of similarly motivated student-athletes, don’t get as much attention as other sports?
A In the swimming community, you know what you’re getting into. That’s why as a team and as a sport we are so tight-knit. People are doing special things, and it’s an extremely hard sport. I don’t think [the lack of attention] bothered me, but I did like it when people would take notice.
Q The Gophers won Big Ten titles each of your four years. Did you have an inkling this would be such a powerhouse when you signed here?
A I didn’t really know when I signed. I remember coaches saying, “I can’t guarantee we’ll win a single Big Ten title, but we’ll always be in the running.” And honestly I didn’t really even know what that meant, coming from Winnipeg. I didn’t really understand the Big Ten. But it changed when I got here. The class I was part of, the first week we got here we wrote down that we were going to win Big Tens four years in a row. I remember feeling so excited during those first practices that we had the energy to be something special.