Ashley Danner might be one of the best American swimmers that most of the swimming world hadn’t heard of until the 2010 NCAA Psych Sheets came out. Leading up to the meet, she was referred to as “that George Mason swimmer” or “the girl that’s seeded first in the 100 breaststroke that we just don’t know much about.” After a great showing at NCAA’s, where she finished second in the 100 and sixth in the 200, she is now being heralded as the favorite to win the 100 breaststroke in 2011.
Danner is a Sophomore, and attended Lake Braddock High School in Springfield, Virginia, which is one of the top swimming schools in the state of Virginia. In high school, she set the Virginia state records in the 200 IM and 100 breaststroke.
We got an opportunity to ask Danner some questions to try to get to know a little bit more about her, and we got some great answers. Here’s what she had to say about George Mason, her NCAA experience, and her swimming career.
1. Your bio says you were also recruited by schools like Texas and LSU. What made you choose George Mason?
I chose Mason because I met Peter Ward when I was in high school. One of my good swimmer friends used to swim with him on a local club team he coaches in this area. I thought he seemed really nice and lots of the swimmers on the team seemed to be doing really well under him. Also I wanted to stay close to home and I have always considered GMU as an option since I was younger, because my dad went here.
2. What are your goals in swimming, both collegiality and beyond?
In college I hope to win an NCAA title in at least one event, hopefully the 100 yard breaststroke. After college my dream goal would be to make the Olympic team. I know this would be extremely hard to do since there are so many really fast swimmers, but that is my hope and dream.
3. Did you inherit your athletic abilities from either one of your parents? Were either one of them swimmers, and if not, how did you first get into swimming?
Actually I didn’t know that both my parents swam when they were younger until I started swimming. I started swimming because one of my friends from elementary school was on the NVSL summer league swim team and I thought it would be a fun way to hang out with her more over the summer.
4. Most elite swimmers that I talk to have a moment when it first hits them that the swimming world is starting to take serious notice of them. Have you had that moment yet, and if so, what was it?
I am just now starting to think that the swimming world may be starting to notice me because I just got interviewed by Swimming World Magazine online. As well as there have been other articles I have read about how I did at NCAA’s. One site said I was the “breakout swimmer of the year” and they also call me the “unknown” swimmer of the NCAA meet. After reading the articles it made me want to try harder and keep up what I’m doing now so I can reach my maximum potential and maybe in the future be at the top.
5. This year, we saw that your teammate Kristen also qualified for NCAA’s in diving. Did it help any having a teammate there this season to share the experience with?
Yes, I think it helped me this year because I had someone who was going through almost the same thing I was, where we had to compete with all the top swimmers or divers for her, in the NCAA’s. We both would tell each other good luck and to stay calm and relaxed because we have done our events hundreds of times before this meet. Having teammates is also fun because you have someone your age to talk to and hang out with in between sessions.
6. As one of the top returning breaststrokers in the nation next season, does anything change for you as far as your training goes?
This year I have trained harder than I have ever before and I’m really happy that it paid off at NCAA’s. But next year I think I am going to have to train even harder because I am one of the top returning breaststrokers and I want to stay at the top for my remaining years in college. Also there are going to be a lot of good freshman coming in next year so I want to train and try and stay ahead of them at the next NCAA’s.
7. Last year, you made the B-final in the 100. What’s the difference between racing in the B-final and squaring off head-to-head against the likes of Annie Chandler and Alia Atkinson?
When I swam in the B-final last year I felt like I didn’t have as much pressure as being in the top heat and trying to keep your position you came in to finals with. In the B-final I was just happy I got to make it back and swim again for my team but to me in the A-final I felt like I had to swim my fastest and had more pressure to do well and swim fast. Also being in the A-final you have the fastest person in the NCAA that you are trying to keep up with and beat, which makes me want to do better.
8. Mapquest tells me that Springfield and Fairfax are only about a 20 minute drive from each other. What are your favorite and least favorite part of going to college so close to home?
My favorite part about staying close to home is that I can go home on the weekends if I want to get away for a little or just have a home cooked meal. My least favorite part is that I don’t get to be in a different environment and do not get to experience living somewhere new and that I don’t get the opportunity to learn about another place where I potentially might like to live in the future.
9. What’s your favorite set?
My favorite set to do in practice is an IM set. I don’t have a specific IM set but any IM set for me I think is a lot of fun and is most beneficial for me since I really like to practice all my strokes. The IM sets I feel are sometimes more difficult and I get tired easier but I think it will help me in the long run when I’m at a meet later on.
10. What are your other hobbies besides swimming?
When I’m not swimming I enjoying taking pictures. In high school, before I came to George Mason, I was thinking of majoring in Photography because I thought it was something fun to do with my spare time and something I just liked to do.
11. Your bio says your major is undeclared. Any update to that? If not, what kind of majors are you considering?
I actually declared my major at the beginning of this school year. I am majoring in Sport Management and I am really enjoying the classes so far and think it’s a good fit for me.
12. Is there anything else you’d like the swimming world to know? Any good stories, Ashley Danner trivia, or special talents that everyone should know about?
In addition to swimming I also rowed my freshman year in high school and loved that sport as well. I was able to row with my older sister in the First 8 for Lake Braddock, and the year I rowed was the first year the girls qualified for Nationals.
We also got the chance to speak with Ashley’s coach, Peter Ward. Coach Ward has been at George Mason since the very beginning. In 1998, he was hired as the Patriot’s first swim coach to build their program from the ground up. Since that time, he has built George Mason into a mid-major powerhouse, being named the Colonial Athletic Association men’s coach of the year twice and having coached over 20 All-Americans.
Ward was no slouch as a swimmer, either. He was a four-year letter winner at Arkansas, and competed in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics for his native Canada, where he finished seventh in the 200 butterfly.
Here is what Coach Ward has to say about Ashley and her training.
1. I love talking about swimming recruiting. Obviously, you guys have had some amount of success in the past and are one of the top programs in the CAA, but how has the national exposure that Ashley has brought affected your ability to recruit? Any swimmers coming in next season that you are particularly excited about?
Having Ashley swim so well has certainly helped with more exposure to our program and we have some great kids interested. I am very excited about the group we have committed for next year. If I had to pick out one it would probably be Paige Impink from Reading, PA because her sister [Senior distance freestyler Caitlin Impink] has swum for me the past 4 years and i think it is great when you get siblings, as it shows that the older ones had a great experience at Mason.
2. What’s Ashley’s personality like in the pool? Is she the all-out all the time self-motivated type, or is she more laid back during practice?
I think you get a little of both with Ashley. Most of the time she comes in, works hard, and pushes things; but like most of us there are times she needs to be pushed a little harder and she responds well. I think the biggest improvement she has made this year is in the weight room. She is much stronger and it has made a noticeable difference.
3. You seem to have a pipeline straight from Lake Braddock High, where Ashley swam, to George Mason. What is it that you’ve seen in swimmers coming out of that program that really grabs your attention?
I don’t think it is so much Lake Braddock but swimmers from this area in general. I think it is important for us to recruit in Northern Virginia as there is an abundance of good swimming in this area. Many of them want a great college experience without having to move to far from home. We can certainly provide that at Mason.
4. How does practicing with a swimmer as good as Ashley affect the rest of your team? Does it drive them to be better?
I think that having a great swimmer like Ashley in the pool definitely brings up the level of the workout. It has really helped some of the other in the group especially freshman Kelsey Holmgaard.
5. What’s your favorite set to give to your breaststrokers?
I don’t know that I have a specific favorite set for the breaststrokers, but I like to do some progression type work with them. For instance we do sets where they go 25 single arm to work the front of the stroke 25 3 kicks to a pull to work timing and then a 25 build to put it all together. I also like doing vertical kick while playing catch with a 5kg medicine ball. It works the kick but also forces body awareness and coordination.
Coach Ward mentioned a few interesting names in there. One was Kelsey Holmgaard. This year, as only a freshman, she was 6th at the CAA Championships in the 100 breaststroke in 1:03.92, but had a season’s best time of 1:03.63 in the prelims. George Mason is quietly developing themselves a very nice breaststroke group, and with Danner pushing the team from the front, Holmgaard is definitely a name to watch for the next few seasons as a potential NCAA scorer for the Patriots.
I really liked the idea that Coach Ward had about vertical kicking while passing medicine balls. As a former water polo player, I really like doing vertical kicking with my swimmers, but am in love with the theory behind passing the medicine balls. As we’ve seen with Yolane Kukla, the 14-year old Australian swimming sensation and former gymnast, body awareness can be a huge advantage to swimmers.
After speaking with Ashley and Coach Ward, it definitely sounds like George Mason has the tools in place to take their program to another level over the next few seasons, led by Ashley. Good luck to the Patriots!