By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, May 12, 2017Photo courtesy of Kayla Wolf/Mizzou Athletics
As evidenced from her recent time (59.4) in the 100 backstroke, Hannah Stevens just keeps swimming faster and faster.
That time as well as her performance a few weeks earlier at NCAA Championships were personal bests in yards and meters.
With Phillip 66 USA Swimming National Championships next month in Indianapolis – and a potential spot on this summer’s FINA World Championship team in the balance – her timing couldn’t be better.
Considering she’s been chasing her top event competitors – Kathleen Baker and Olivia Smoliga – for the last few years, Stevens believes she’s gaining ground on the two Olympians who will be among the favorites to make the World team.
But she knows she has her work cut out for her – and she’s up to the challenge.
“It would be a dream come true to make the World team or World University Games team; it would be a true validation that I’m continuing to get faster,” said Stevens, a junior at the University of Missouri.
“But I know it’s going to be tough with Kathleen (2016 Olympic silver medalist) and (2016 Trials winner) Olivia also competing. I’m excited. I’ve been swimming fast and working really hard.”
Stevens won’t truly know how far she’s come until next month, but considering she finished third behind both of them at NCAAs in March, she said she knows she’s going to need to speed up her game even more to compete.
Since arriving at Missouri as an unheralded recruit, Stevens has blossomed into one of the fastest backstrokers around.
She said working with 2012 Olympic gold medalist Mark Gangloff, an assistant on the Missouri team, in practice as well as changing her diet, getting more sleep and adjusting her stroke has helped her pick up speed throughout her time in Columbia.
“Mark has really helped me, coming in before and staying after practice to work on my walls, breakouts and turns,” she said. “I came to Missouri wide-eyed and not sure how far I could take my swimming. He has helped me so much. I credit my progress largely from working with him and what he’s taught me.”
Proof of this came last summer at her first Olympic Trials in Omaha when she more than held her own to finish fifth in the 100 back.
Considering four years earlier she didn’t even make Trials cuts until months after Trials, she knows she has made tremendous progress.
Stevens continued her rapid rise with her top three finish at NCAAs this past March – improving from 14th her freshman and sophomore seasons.
“I felt really ready at Trials – ready to contend for the team – and had a great time in Omaha,” she said. “My performance at Trials really gave me a lot of confidence heading into this past season. Now, I’m feeling even more confident as I head into this summer and Nationals.
“I was really relaxed at Trials, joking around and enjoying the experience. I’ve learned over time that I swim better when I don’t get too excited and stay calm.”
Hailing from Ohio, Stevens got her start in the pool around age 7 when she followed her older brother and sister to their practices. By age 8, she was at the pool five times a week for practice, showing steady improvement.
In addition to enjoying reading, hiking and hanging out with her friends, Stevens said she also embraced a love for varying her workouts outside of the pool.
For her, it’s all part of doing whatever it takes to elevate her swimming to its highest point.
“Throughout this process – and especially after my swims at Trials last year – I’ve learned to believe more in myself because I know now that I can compete with the best in the world,” said Stevens, who made her second U.S. National team this year.
“Now, when a set gets really hard and I’m really tired, I can push through because I know what I want and what’s attainable.”
With two years left at Missouri (she’ll finish her eligibility next spring but not graduate until 2019), Stevens is already looking past college to graduate school to pursue her goal of becoming a speech pathologist.
She intends to swim through 2020, and depending on how things go, intends to make that her final year of competition.
But never say never.
“I think at that point – whether or not I make the next Olympic team – I’ll be ready to take the next step in my career and move from swimming,” said Stevens, who works with disabled (physically and mentally) youth weekly in Sunday school at her church.
“I’ve always been drawn to working with kids, and as a speech pathologist, I can do that. I want to make an impact in their lives. It took me a while to get here, but I know now that’s my calling. It’s what I’m meant to do.”