Big Ten Senior Spotlight: Van Donkersgoed of Northwestern University

The Northwestern Wildcats are one of the younger teams in the Big Ten, with only two seniors on the roster entering the 2015-16 season. Additionally due to some unfortunate developments, the Wildcats will not actually have any seniors competing at the 2016 Big Ten Championships. That being said, our next senior is Van Donkersgoed out of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and though he will not be in the pool with the rest of his teammates in West Lafayette, his presence will still be a contributing factor in the Wildcats’ success next week.

A highly successful swimmer in the club swimming world before starting his NCAA Career, Van represented the Aquajets Swim Team, the same club that manufactured Olympic gold medalist and multiple-time NCAA Champion Rachel Bootsma. Having competed at multiple national level competitions as a teenager, Donkersgoed was a member of the 2009-10 National Junior Team, and also owned career-high finishes of 5th in the 100 breast (1:03.94) and 200 breast (2:16.57) from the 2010 Summer Junior National Championships. Additionally, he also swam both breaststroke races at the 2012 Summer Olympic Trials, with finishes of 135th in the 100 breast (1:06.58), and 123rd in the 200 breast (2:25.17).

Upon arriving in Evanston, Illinois for this freshman season, Van immediately filled the hybrid breaststroke/IM role that the Wildcats desperately needed at the time. Competing at his first Big Ten Championships, Donkersgoed raced to a trio of best times with finishes of 21st in the 100 breast (55.25, 55.05 in prelims), 14th in the 200 breast (1:57.30), and 19th in the 400 IM (3:52.29). Notably, his 200 breast swim made him the third fastest performer in program history.

Returning for his sophomore season, Van continued to be one of the top Wildcat performers in the breaststroke and IM events. He would turn in finishes of 23rd in the 100 breast (55.43 55.08 in prelims), 24th in the 200 breast (1:59.48, 1:58.99 in prelims), and 19th in the 400 IM (3:54.04).

As a junior with the Wildcats, Donkersgoed would alter his schedule slightly, recording finishes of 78th in the 50 free (swam it breaststroke, 25.87), 34th in the 100 breast (55.81), and 20th in the 200 breast (1:58.81). Notably, for the third consecutive year, Van would end his season while holding the fastest time on the team in the 200 breast.

Unfortunately for Donkersgoed, a medical complication that had hindered him since 2010 would finally take its toll on his body, rendering him largely unable to carry on as a high-level NCAA athlete. As mentioned in Danielle Elliott’s article (linked above), the fatigue that Donkersgoed would experience on a daily basis forced him to make the most difficult decision of his life: hanging up his goggles prematurely. Though Van was extremely reluctant to quit the sport he loved so dearly, he would receive a second chance to stay connected with his team by taking on the role of student assistant coach for the 2015-16 season.

Though the Wildcats will be without any senior leaders in the pool or standout distance phenom Jordan Wilimovsky, who is taking the year off to train for the Olympics in Rio, the men from Evanston can have confidence knowing that Van Donkersgoed will be right there with them, standing on deck as a symbol of persistence and camaraderie. Refusing to leave his team behind, Van will be a spiritual force for the Wildcats to rally behind, and that is exactly what an underclassmen-heavy team like Northwestern needs in a big meet environment. Look for this Wildcat to be pacing up and down the deck at Big Tens, passionate as ever about the sport that he loves most.

Best Times (SCY/LCM):
100 Breast: 55.05/1:03.94
200 Breast: 1:57.30/2:16.57
200 IM: 1:51.77/2:10.01
400 IM: 3:52.29/4:37.69

School Major/Degree: Social Policy & Legal Studies 
Favorite Event:  
200 Breaststroke 
Favorite Hobby:  
I enjoy reading, paintball, and coffee
Favorite Movie: 
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles  
Person You’d Like to Meet Growing Up: 
Solicitor General 
Favorite Food/ Pre-Race Meal: 
Pesto Cavatappi from Noodles and Company 

At what age did you become involved with swimming? How did you get into it?

I started swimming at age 11. I saw the swim team practicing at our local athletic club and I asked my parents if I could try it out. I was the first one in my family to swim.

What is your favorite collegiate swimming memory and why? 

Big Tens my freshmen year is still my favorite memory. I remember my teammate and friend, Aaron Sears swimming the 100BR in the heat before me in prelims, dropping a second and a half, and that inspired me to go drop a second in my heat and make it back. 

You are a member of the Board of Directors for 2015-16 for USA Swimming and have also served as a member in several other committees within USA Swimming for a number of years now. With such extensive involvement in the political and logistical sides of swimming in the United States, do you feel like you have gained a different viewpoint of the sport through your involvement?

 I think I have gained a better appreciation for the amazing opportunities that swimming has to offer athletes both inside and outside of the pool. I think that my experience on the dry side of things has really solidified my desire to give back to the sport and work to ensure that other young people have the same opportunities that I have had through swimming.  The lessons that I have learned as an athlete and in governance will follow me the rest of my life.

It is very difficult for any athlete to undergo any form of injury, let alone be forced to end a career prematurely as you had to this past Fall. However, you traded your goggles for a stopwatch, and now play a prominent role as a student assistant coach for the Wildcats. With this unique transition from athlete to coach happening so quickly for you, can you describe what it has been like to gain this dual perspective of the sport?

I was very pleased that I was able to end my swimming career while still having the opportunity to contribute to the program. Coaching has been a lot of fun and I have learned a lot about myself in the process. It is really interesting to see the sport from the other side and you really realize how nice it is to be an athlete. I think it is more difficult to stand on the side of the pool during a meet than it is to swim, because as a coach, you have no ability to dive in the water and effectuate change (score points, inspire, etc.). Your only tools are your words and your actions, in hopes that they will inspire the athlete to do his/her best. 

What/who do you think has been the single most important catalyst to your swimming career?

The people. The people in the sport are what keep me going. The swimming—and aquatics community at large— is a very tight knit group of individuals who genuinely want the best for each other.  

Do you have any plans/commitments following the completion of your collegiate career?

I am working for Kiefer Swim Products starting in March. I will be doing team sales for them and I am really looking forward to staying in aquatics and giving back to the community.

What should we look forward to from Northwestern as a whole at this year’s Big Ten Championships?

The program is a really young team right now and I think that is to its advantage. The group has really come together the second half of the year as each individual is finding their racing niche. I would expect our athletes to be focused on executing each race to the best of their ability and letting the outcomes come as a result of trusting in the process. I trust that there will be a number of point scorers.

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About Varun Shivakumar

Varun Shivakumar hails from Hoffman Estates, IL and swam competitively for 16 years. He swam both backstroke events at Northwestern University, and ranks fifth in the school’s All-time performances list in the 200 yard backstroke. Representing NASA Wildcat Aquatics, he also competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials in Omaha, NE …

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