By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, September 8, 2017Finishing one spot from the semifinals of the 200 butterfly last summer at Olympic Trials didn’t dissuade or disappoint Dakota Luther.
If anything, as she put it, that result “lit a fire” inside of her that burned strong throughout the rest of the year and into 2017.
“Olympic Trials was eye-opening for me,” she said. “Watching people make the team and getting chills everywhere was something I had never experienced before.
“That was the week I realized what I really wanted to do in the sport. So, I guess you could say I chased a carrot the last year leading up to Nationals.”
When she went to Indianapolis for Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this summer, Luther – the daughter of Olympic gold medalist Whitney Hedgepeth – relied upon that fire and desire to drive her to earn a spot on the U.S. World Championship team.
She not only chased the carrot, but caught it and ate it whole.
“So much has changed in a year for me,” Luther said. “I started looking at situations differently. I started imagining that one of my competitors was racing me every day in practice.
“I started training harder and my confidence began to soar. Besides the mental side of things, I really focused on getting stronger outside of the pool with weights and core exercises.”
While she didn’t medal at Worlds in Budapest, Luther, who finished 15th in her event, said she left the meet having gained a world of experience and realized she belonged among the best in the world.
Worlds are just a start for the 17 year old, who is heading to Georgia next fall to work with Jack Bauerle as she pursues her own Olympic dream.
“The experience I gained while training and racing with the World Championship Team was unbelievable,” she said. “So many people there like Elizabeth Beisel and Katie Ledecky took me under their wing and made me feel a part of something special. They showed me that I do belong at that level and you can continue to have fun while doing it.
“Now, I've been trying to show my club and high school teammates the same respect. It just takes one person to make a difference in someone else's swimming career.”
The daughter of an Olympic swimmer, Luther said her mom – 1996 Olympic gold-medalist Whitney Hedgepeth – made sure she and her brothers could swim when they were young – learning at 3 years old and enrolling in a summer league at 4.
While it started purely as a safety precaution, Luther said she didn’t really like swimming until she realized she was talented and had a future in the sport as a 10-year-old.
From there, it became her passion, but according to Hedgepeth, she didn’t necessarily want her daughter to swim competitively.
“I made sure she knew how to swim well, but I didn't want her to be a swimmer. I thought it would be too much pressure for her,” said Hedgepeth, who won three medals (one gold, two silver) at the Atlanta Olympics and also competed for the United States in the 200 individual medley at the 1988 Olympics.
“She played basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, dance, tennis, tap, karate, and volleyball. Swimming was definitely more her thing. Eventually, after all other sports failed to excite her, I let her swim.”
Hedgepeth accompanied Dakota to Budapest for Worlds, and prior to her event, told her daughter to enjoy the ride and take in as much as she could.
“I was super excited for her and so proud,” she said.
“Dakota is a racer. I told her to remember she earned that spot and no one gave it to her. We had a great time. It was a super fun and fast meet.”
Luther said making that team was probably the best thing that has happened to her thus far in her young life.
She said to see her hard work pay off like that was a very fulfilling feeling – one that has brought her and her mom even closer.
“My mom always tells me her stories from all of her trips, and now I have my own,” she said. “It's special to be able to share something like that with her.
“I’ve never felt any pressure from my mom to swim fast. She’s always supported me in whatever it is that I want to do. I think other people have high expectations for me or see my results and think that it’s just a genes thing. I’m trying to create my own path, and my mom is helping me get there.”
It’s also given her the belief and desire that she can take her swimming career one more step to join her mom in an even more elite and exclusive group.
“When I was little I always told people that I wanted to be an Olympian, but I didn't truly believe in that dream until last year at Trials,” she said. “I'd love to follow in my mom's footsteps.
“I mean, I pass by the gold medal every day at home. Nobody else swims in my family outside of summer league, so it's a big bonding topic between me and my mom.”
It’s definitely something her coach, former Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Brendan Hansen thinks is a possibility.
Going into Phillips 66 Nationals this summer, he said he thought she had a good shot at making the team because she’s a hard worker.
In his view, it was just a matter of whether or not her natural desire would show up in her races.
“The only advice I gave her during the meet was after prelims when she was seeded second,” he said. “I asked her how the best swimmers at this meet would be acting while she was freaking out and still not in the warm down pool. She immediately hopped in to warm down and the rest is history.”
Hansen, who has worked with Luther for the past two years, sees her biggest advancement and improvement in the water is her continued growth in confidence.
“After 17th at Trials, it really motivated her every day until she got a chance to redeem herself,” he said. “It’s always how you respond to a setback – not success – that determines how far you go in this sport.
“We did work on aerobic ability and race strategy – constantly taking splits during workouts. She loves the sport and loves being a student of it. She studies it a lot. I just made sure every day I challenged her harder than she wanted.”
With the next Trials less than three years away, Luther said she is focused on enjoying her final year of high school, taking her official visit to Georgia later this month and continuing to improve in the water and classroom.
She has faith that the rest will come as it’s supposed to – when it’s supposed to.
“I love to race,” said Luther, who said she is leaning toward studying sports dietetics or pre-physical therapy at Georgia. “There's no better feeling than getting butterflies in my stomach and racing my heart out. It's what I love most about this sport.
“For me, it's all about progress. Best times. As long as I'm having fun and dropping time, swimming will be my passion. In life, I just try to enjoy every moment, be nice to people, and be myself.”