By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, February 13, 2018
Dakota Luther was excited for the summer before her last year of high school, and knew the World Juniors were coming up. So she planned to seize the opportunity in the 200 fly at Phillips 66 Nationals. And she did that -- and more, finishing second. The Austin native made the World Championship team, meaning instead of a summer in Indianapolis at World Juniors, she would compete for Team USA in Budapest. She finished seventh in the B final and learned a lot, as the future Georgia Bulldog explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. When did this incredible run start?
Dakota: I think it started at Olympic Trials. Getting 17th there was definitely the fire for me. I can’t say the World Championship team was the goal; originally, I just wanted to make the National Team. But I had that really good swim in the morning so I thought, “I might as well go for it.” The rest is a dream to be honest.
2. So at Trials did you know you were second to Hali Flickinger and had made the team?
Dakota: When I touched, it was really loud. I guess I kind of figured something had happened (laughs) but it was amazing to see it.
3. Is that moment itself rewarding?
Dakota: It is. I think the best races are the ones where the glory at the finish (laughs) overshadows the pain. Everything goes numb at the end!
4. Did you realize getting out of the pool you had made the 2017 U.S. World Championship team?
Dakota: It definitely took a while to sink in. I think it still is now -- just because I didn’t expect to make it, to be on the same team as Lilly King, and so many great swimmers. Even when I think about it now, it kind of blows my mind.
5. Being around those athletes, Regan Smith said you and she learned a lot, did you?
Dakota: Yes, for sure. I think I know for sure that Regan and I matured a lot during the trip, being around those people. They are so normal and excel at school. They are amazing people in every area. It was really cool to see that.
6. You were around all of these older swimmers yet I am told by one and all how well you fit in -- how is that possible?
Dakota: Because they all are really young at heart. That’s how they are still around in the sport and still at the top of their game. We really enjoyed Katie Meili. And it’s ironic because she was the oldest, and we were the two youngest, and we got pulled for drug testing right off (the plane). So we had a lot of time with Katie Meili, which was incredible. She was so nice to us.
7. What did you ask her about?
Dakota: We definitely complained (laughs) a lot! No, actually, she really talked to us a lot. She explained to us about going to law school and what else she was doing, which was really motivating. And it was so casual and fun. Just another one of those people who is a great swimmer, but even more impressive as a person.
8. That was pretty cool being stuck with an Olympic medalist -- what was it like to be around her in person?
Dakota: She is just so pretty, and so nice, and she was a really good team captain. She made sure everyone felt so comfortable and involved in what we were doing.
9. How about the men’s captains?
Dakota: Both Nathan (Adrian) and Matt (Grevers) are really funny. They have no problem understanding what 15 and 17 year-olds are going through and loved to listen and help with any questions we had. What sticks out in my mind with those two is how fun it was watching them play Nintendo DS -- seeing how into it they got!
10. Regan said you two loved the food at camp, true?
Dakota: It was crazy how much good food they had! Just looking at the food, it wasn’t much different from what I am used to -- the big difference was how they seasoned stuff. To be honest, I’m not a seafood person, but there were a lot of great options for everything. Having that kind of range kind of got me prepared for how it’s going to be at college, eating away from home.
11. You picked Georgia for college, why?
Dakota: My goal now is to make an Olympic team. That’s a dream of mine. Georgia does a really good job of putting people on the team. And I loved Athens. It reminds me of Austin, just less populated. And it is cute in the way southern states are. The girls on the team were so nice and the combined environment let’s everybody be competitive in their own way.
12. So the environment was a big thing?
Dakota: Yes, and they are a big family. Each one of the swimmers brings a different aspect to the table. You can go to different people for different things. They care about you as a person. And they set high standards academically.
13. Did seeing your future college teammates and coaches at Worlds help you on the decision for college?
Dakota: Actually, I had already committed to Georgia. So seeing Jack and having all those coaches believe in me before I did something like make the team is something that is really touching when I think about it now.
14. Your Mom, Whitney Hedgepeth, in addition to being a very kind person was an Olympic swimmer -- what do you hear about your Mom from those days?
Dakota: People always tell me great things about her. Ray Looze was on the Budapest trip and he trained with my Mom a little bit. I heard she was insane as a trainer and how competitive she was. I think she was the person who taught me to dream big. She’s always giving me things that say “Dream Big” on it. When I made the team this summer, she was still shocked! And I made the team in Indianapolis, where her name is on the wall.
15. So you can beat your Mom’s time in some events, right?
Dakota: Well, she swam everything! My flys are definitely faster than hers were. But she put up some times that are just incredible. She’s super motivating for me.
16. And so is the coach you’ve had for this past period of time, Brendan Hansen, right?
Dakota: He’s amazing. He’s taken me a long way with confidence. He’s always been around Austin since he (finished competing). I actually swam at the club out of UT before and he was swimming there when I was 11 or 12 years old. The big thing is, I am a lot more confident now than I was. A year ago, if you would’ve asked me to do an interview on the phone, I wouldn’t have been as ready. Brendan has been really helping me learn to develop the confidence to believe in myself. And I do believe now. It’s really cool to believe in yourself, develop that personality where you know you can hold your own.
17. What was it like being in a country with as much history as Hungary, and that beautiful, historically rich city of Budapest?
Dakota: To learn about that history and all of that other culture and parts of the world is really neat for me. Especially seeing how many different swimmers can succeed with different styles and different approaches. Then, in November, I went to Tokyo for World Cup and walked by where the Olympic pool was being built. That was really cool.
18. You mentioned your USA teammates having such a significant impact on you -- why or how does that dynamic take place?
Dakota: I think they are all great people. The National Team has created a great national environment for us. We are taught on the women’s team to embrace each other and learn from each other -- not to be out to get each other. And everyone really does like everybody else -- you hear that all the time, but for me, it was really cool to see that and experience it.
19. Did you meet people from other countries at Worlds?
Dakota: I actually got to talk to a few people, and they all were amazing. I was able to talk to Rūta Meilutytė, the breaststroker (from Lithuania), who was super sweet. All these swimmers are also good people who excel at things they do outside of swimming as well.
20. This journey that started at Olympic Trials, is it the experience, the growth, making Worlds, the interactions -- what shaped you, and how did it shape you?
Dakota: I think it encompasses all of that. I’ve matured a lot. I’ve grown up a lot in a year. Even in the three weeks I was at Worlds, it had a profound impact on me, especially with college coming up. I used to be worried about leaving home, leaving my parents, and going to Georgia. But I’m in a better place now as a person, and I’m looking forward to the challenges ahead.