College Swimming Previews: #12 Minnesota Women Will Miss Smith

Key Additions: Zoe Avestruz (MN – Free/Back/Fly), Rachel Munson (WI – Breastroke), Erin Emery (NV – Distance Free), Kaia Grobe (MN – Free/Fly)

Key Losses: Becca Weiland (4 NCAA Relays), Tori Simenec (4 NCAA Relays), Jessica Plant (2 NCAA Relays), Kierra Smith* (2 Big Ten Titles, 1 NCAA Title, 1 Other Individual Final, 2 NCAA Relays), Kiera Janzen (1 Big Ten Relay)

*Taking Olympic Redshirt year, expected to return for 2016-17 season

2014-2015 Lookback

Coming off a 10th place finish in 2014, the Minnesota Golden Gophers fell down 2 spots in 2015 at NCAAs. After a breakthrough performance at the Big Ten Championships where they won the title over rivals Indiana and Michigan, Minnesota had a difficult time recreating the same performances at NCAAs.

Senior Kiera Janzen pulled out of NCAAs at the last minute due to medical reasons which was a big hit to their 800 free relay, dropping them from a potential top 8 finish to 16th. Janzen had a solid showing at Big Ten’s, finishing 6th in the 500, 10th in the 1650 and 12th in the 200 free.

Canadian Kierra Smith was their most dominant swimmer last year, with a pair of breastroke victories at Big Tens and the NCAA title in the 200 breast, to go along with another finals appearance in the 100. Smith was also a staple on the medley relays, giving them a boost on the breastroke leg.

Along with Smith, diver Yu Zhou carried the team in terms of points. She was named Big Ten and NCAA diver of the year for her outstanding performances. At Big Tens, Zhou won the 1-meter and 3-meter events, and came in 2nd on the platform. At NCAAs she won the 3-meter, was 3rd in the 1-meter and came 5th on the platform, contributing 50 of Minnesota’s 118 points at the meet. She will be relied on heavily again this year.

Zhou and Smith contributed 69.5% of the teams points at NCAAs, with the only other large contributions coming from the 9th place 400 free relay and Brooke Zeiger’s 6th place finish in the 400 IM. Points were also chipped in by the 800 free relay (2 pts) and Becca Weiland in the 50 free (3 pts).

Backstroke Problem Answered?

Last year Minnesota lacked a backstroker, with no one scoring in the backstroke events at Big Tens and only Brooke Zeiger swimming the 200 back at NCAAs (53rd). Tori Simenec was forced into the role as the backstroker on the medley relays, despite being a sprint butterfly/freestyle specialist. She swam well considering, but it put the Gophers at a disadvantage. Incoming rookie Zoe Avestruz is a multi-talented sprinter, capable in freestyle, backstroke and butterfly. Inputting her backstroke personal best times into Minnesota’s Big Ten medley relays, they go from 4th to 2nd in the 200 medley and 4th to 1st in the 400 medley. Not only that, but input Avestruz’s times into the medley relays from NCAA’s and all of a sudden Minnesota goes from 26th and 22nd into scoring position. The medley relays will be losing breastroke star Kierra Smith for the season, so Avestruz, along with incoming rookie breastroker Rachel Munson, will look to lead Minnesota back into the top-16 in the medley relays.

Freestyle Relay Overhaul

Last year Minnesota’s freestyle relays were largely made up of seniors, meaning they will need a mix of rookies and vets to step up and fill in the gaps this season. Becca Weiland, Tori Simenec and Jessica Plant were relay stalwarts, as the three of them combined for 10 relay appearances at NCAAs. Add 800 free relay swimmer Kiera Janzen into the mix and that’s four key free relay swimmers gone. Simenec, Weiland and Plant were all members of the 9th place finishing 400 free relay at NCAAs, their most successful relay by far. Incoming rookie Zoe Avestruz will be a big help, with personal best times of 22.48 and 48.91 in the sprint events. They will need big campaigns from returning swimmers Danielle Nack and Lauren Votava, along with rookies Kaia Grobe, Chantal Nack and Margaret Werba if they want to remain competitive. With those big losses, they will have their work cut out for them if they want to score in any freestyle relay at NCAAs.

Smith Leaves Huge Hole on Breastroke

With the 2016 Olympics coming up next summer, breastroke star Kierra Smith is taking the year off from school and NCAA swimming in order to focus on the Canadian Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games. This leaves a huge hole on the squad, as Smith was the top point scoring swimmer by far with 32 points at NCAAs,  including a win in the 200 breast. Without Smith’s points, Minnesota would end up 16th instead of 12th at last seasons championship meet. Along with the individual points, this is a huge hit to the medley relays, as now that they seem to have found their backstroker they lose their star breastroker for the year. Last season Smith was their only swimmer who competed in breastroke at NCAAs, but they have some incoming swimmers who hope to fill the void. Rachel Munson, Elisa Burgstahler, Nicole Ciavarella and Katelyn Sauder all come into this year looking to make an impact in breastroke. Munson is the fastest, with best times of 1:01.1 and 2:13.9. Bringing in multiple high quality breastrokers makes the chance of someone having a breakout year all the more likely. And it’s near impossible to argue with head coach Kelly Kremer‘s track record with breaststrokers: Kremer has coached three different women to NCAA breaststroke titles in the last five years.


With Smith redshirting the year, Minnesota will need to rely on diver Yu Zhou more than ever this year. Zhou finished 1st, 1st and 2nd in the diving events at Big Tens, and at NCAAs was 1st, 3rd and 5th, contributing some big points for the team at both meets. She’s the star of the diving team and was the only one to score points at NCAAs last year, but they had some other strong divers who made an impact at Big Tens last season. Jessica Ramberg, Katy Etterman and Lexi Tanenbaum all had top finishes at Big Ten’s, with Etterman finishing 2nd on 1-meter, Tanenbaum 5th on platform and Ramberg with three top-8 finishes to go along with an 18th place finish at NCAAs, just out of the points. Etterman is the only diver graduating, leaving three very capable divers on the team for this season.

Other Key Swimmers

  • Heading into her sophomore season, Brooke Zeiger looks to improve upon her successful first year at Minnesota. Zeiger had two podium finishes at Big Tens (1st 400 IM, 3rd 1650 Fr), and followed up with a successful NCAAs which included an appearance in the championship final in the 400 IM (6th). Also notable about her 400 IM is that her time from Big Tens (4:03.28) would’ve been 3rd at NCAAs. She didn’t compete in the 1650 at NCAAs, but her Big Ten time would’ve scored. Zeiger also subbed in for Kiera Janzen in the 800 free relay at NCAAs, an event she will likely be adding to her regular program this year.
  • Heading into her final year with Minnesota, distance freestyler Sam Harding will look for some small improvements after a successful junior year. At Big Tens Harding just missed the podium in the 500 and 1650 free, finishing 4th in both events. She then just missed scoring in both events at NCAAs finishing 18th and 21st. After near misses, top-3 and top-16 finishes at Big Tens and NCAAs would be a great way for Harding to finish off her career with the Golden Gophers. She’s got momentum, coming off a World Championships appearance for Canada in the open water events.
  • Joining Zeiger and Harding in the distance training group will be Erin Emery from Nevada. Emery, a Junior Open Water World Championship team member, has a personal best of 16:06.7 in the 1650, a time that would get her in the top-5 at Big Tens and just off scoring at NCAAs. Emery, Zeiger and Harding form a strong distance squad in Minnesota, and all 3 of them could potentially score individually at NCAAs this season.
  • Senior Lauren Votava will be a key member for the Golden Gophers this year. Last year Votava swam on 3 Big Ten relays and 4 NCAA relays, and is the only surviving member from the 9th place finishing 400 free relay. Votava also had strong individual performances at Big Tens scoring in the 100 freestle (4th) and 200 freestyle (16th). Look for her to be a relay workhorse again this season.
  • Danielle Nack will also be relied on heavily this season. She was a key member on relays last year, swimming 3 at Big Tens and 2 at NCAAs, and will come into the season as the teams top flyer. Along with her relay contributions, Nack proved herself individually as well, finishing 7th in the 100 and 2nd in the 200 fly at Big Ten’s.

2015-2016 Outlook

Minnesota’s team will have a very different look this season. With Smith taking the year off, and the departures of Simenec, Plant, Janzen, Weiland, Ramberg and sprint freestyler Blake Zeiger, the team will be relying heavily on the youngsters to step up and keep them competitive.

Incoming rookies Avestruz, Munson, Grobe and Emery will be called upon for big seasons in order to keep the team competitive, and I believe they will, but the loss of Kierra Smith for the season is just a devastating blow that will most likely bump them out of the top 12 at NCAAs. Brooke Zeiger and Yu Zhou are the only returning individual point scorers from NCAAs, and both scoring relays are losing at least half of their squad.

Minnesota will have a very difficult time defending their title from Big Tens last year, but should remain in the hunt to finish in the top 3. As for NCAAs, the loss of Smith alone would bump them down from 12th to 16th last year, and it looks like it will be tough to remain in the top 12 this year.

Despite the loss of Smith, the team does have lots of potential. Brooke Zeiger looks poised to score individually again at NCAAs, and returning distance swimmer Sam Harding and distance rookie Erin Emery both potentially could as well. Zoe Avestruz could potentially score in the 50 free, 100 free and 100 back individually at NCAAs. Relay responsibilities will fall on the shoulders of Lauren Votava, Danielle Nack, and incoming rookies Avestruz, Kaia Grobe and Rachel Munson. If those swimmers can perform at a top level, Minnesota’s relays will have a chance to score at NCAA’s. Nonetheless, they will be competitive at Big Tens.

One thing Minnesota can count on this season is Yu Zhou. After scoring big points for the team at last seasons championship meets, the Golden Gophers will need Zhou to perform up to the same standard this season.

All in all, Minnesota can’t possibly replace what Kierra Smith brings to the team, but it will be up to the rookies to step up and perform when the championship meets come around if Minnesota is going to approach the level they reached last season.

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About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James formerly competed for the Laurentian Voyageurs in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in February of 2018, placing 11th at the OUA Championships in the 200 IM, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in economics in May. He …

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