Swim and Dive look to ride depth to WAC title
By Cody Bashore
Coming off a second place finish at the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) championships last year, Northern Arizona University’s (NAU) swimming and diving teams appear to be poised for another run at a WAC team title on the back of its star swimmers.
Among those star returners are senior Fi Connell and juniors Emma Lowther and Rachel Palmer. Between the three of them, they hold four individual WAC titles, six individual school records and swam on four school record-setting relay teams. Lowther and Palmer account for a half of NAU’s first WAC relay gold in program history.
“If they perform up to their potential [and] perform their very best in February at the end of the year, then we’re going to be in a good position to hopefully win a championship,” said head coach Andy Johns of the team.
A three-time CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-American, Connell enters her senior season looking to cement her place among the most prolific swimmers in NAU’s history.
The highlight of her final campaign will be the pursuit of a fourth straight gold medal in the 200 backstroke at the WAC Championships.
“I am very fortunate I am able to step up at the conference meet and that I pride myself on my ability to race well when I need to,” Connell said. “The fact that I’ve had so many medals in the backstroke, that’s kind of attributed to the fact that I’ve been a backstroker my whole life and we focus a lot on backstroke purely for me.”
She also enters the season as the defending WAC Champion in the 200 individual medley, seeking the chance to regain her freshman gold in the 100 backstroke after a pair of silvers the past two seasons. This Australian native is also NAU’s school record-holder in all three of her main events: the 100 backstroke, 200 backstroke and 200 individual medley.
“It’s hard, you can never control your opponents and all three years that I’ve done the 100 backstroke I’ve had different opponents,” Connell said. “We’ve had other athletes come in and some of them have gone with other schools leaving for different conferences or just transferring out. I haven’t even looked to see whose coming in or who I’ll be against.”
Fresh off an appearance at her native country New Zealand’s Olympic Trials in April, Lowther returns to the Lumberjacks in search of her first individual WAC championship.
“It’s my focus for me individually. Obviously I have team goals for the season, but then individually, that’s where I want to be; there’s no doubt about it,” Lowther said. “Everything I do is going to be trying to get towards that. Training hard, working hard in the weight room, everything.”
With silver medals in the 500 freestyle and 1650 freestyle this past season, Lowther earned her second straight appearance as a CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-American last season.
Lowther’s first taste of the gold came when she swam the lead leg of the 800 freestyle relay team that won NAU’s first WAC relay title in 2012. On the second leg of that relay team was her fellow junior and Kiwi, Palmer.
“We have a lot of depth this year. Which is definitely going to be a great asset to our team,” Lowther said. “I think we could put up very strong relay teams in all four. That would be definitely be another goal for the team this year: to improve on our relay performances.”
The two return to defend the Lumberjacks’ first relay gold. They feel with the stable of swimmers the team has, they can add to the budding collection of relay medals.
“We have a lot of new freshman this year who are going to show everyone that they are here and they are ready,” Palmer said. “I think our 200 and 400, we’re going to have a whole bunch of amazing girls this year, so it’s going to be tough to get on the relays.”
Additionally, Palmer won a pair of individual gold medals at the WAC Championships. She swam to gold in the 200 butterfly and the 400 individual medley, breaking school records in both races.
“For myself, I just want to make sure I improve, get better than I was last year,” Palmer said. “I was obviously really happy with how I went last year, so if I can improve from that then I’ve done my job.”
As a result of her breakout sophomore campaign, Palmer also was named to the CollegeSwimming.com Mid-Major All-American team.
In diving, NAU will push forward into the year with a bit of inexperience as senior Kristy Ardavanis will be leading a group of divers including two juniors, a sophomore and two true freshmen.
“Last year we had eight divers, but we couldn’t even compete them all. That’s a big number,” said diving coach Nikki Huffman. “Six is a pretty solid number. We’ve had some more depth in the past, but we still have a lot of talent from top to bottom, so I’m excited about all six of them.”
Ardavanis returns to the Lumberjacks after finishing second on the 1-meter board and fourth on the 3-meter board at the WAC Championships. She also appeared at the NCAA Zone E Meet where she finished 12th on the 3-meter board and 24th on the 1-meter board.
Behind Ardavanis is sophomore Katie Dallman and junior Gwen Smithberg, who each have experience at the WAC Championships. Among achievements is Smithberg’s sixth place finish on platform last season.
“Gwen really came on at the end last year, I think she’ll even do better at conference. Last year she was top eight on platform, so I think this year she can be top eight springboard and platform,” Huffman said. “Then we have Katie Dallmann who’s going to be a sophomore and did a great job for us. I think she’ll just get better and better.”
The recent WAC’s membership shake-up will play in the Jacks favor.
“The fact that Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State are gone makes diving absolutely wide open,” Johns said. “So it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out.”
The swim and dive team will kick off its regular season on Oct. 13 in Sedona against in-state rival ASU. The dual meet will follow a pair of inter-squad meets at Wall Aquatic Center, starting with NAU’s 17th annual Pentathlon on Sept. 21 and the Blue and Gold meet on Oct. 12.