By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, November 8, 2019
Even though she swam at 2017 World Championships, Dakota Luther didn’t actually get her first taste of a full international swim experience until World University Games (WUGs) this past summer.
In both the 100 and 200 butterfly events, she swam the gamut of races – prelims, semifinals and finals all the way to a gold medal in the 200 and silver in the 100. She added a second gold as a member of the 400 medley relay.
Suffice it to say, now that she’s been through an entire range of races at a large international meet, Luther, a sophomore All-American at the University of Georgia, is eager for next summer in Omaha.
“WUGs was a great experience,” said Luther, swam prelims and semis of the 200 fly at Worlds in 2017 but didn’t make finals. “To be able to swim the 100 as well as the 200 fly, and to be on my first Team USA relay was such an honor. I learned a lot at that meet.
“I think that WUGs was a better meet for me and my confidence this past summer. I was able to better focus on myself without quite as much pressure as going to Worlds.”
But for the time being – the next five months in particular – Luther said she’s focusing on short-course training and competition as she chases down her first NCAA title next March.
She said her freshman year was tough, but she learned a lot through the process and was able to make some adjustments to her training this season.
And she’s really enjoying herself as much as possible along the way.
“College has been a lot of fun so far,” said Luther, the daughter of 1996 Olympic gold medalist Whitney Hedgepeth. “The coaching staff has done a great job working with me to find what works best with my body.
“I am not your typical 100/200 butterflier, 200/500 freestyler when it comes to training, but I have felt like myself more in the water during the past few months than I have in a while.”
As the daughter of an Olympian and now one of the world’s top swimmers, Luther said she knows the pressure to meet and exceed others’ expectations are out there.
But because she has higher expectations for herself than anyone else could have, she takes it all in stride – and uses that pressure to her advantage.
She also knows more success moves the target from someone’s back to hers.
“Nobody is going to be harder on me than me,” she said. “I am never projected to make a team or win an event when I go to these big meets, even when I made the World Championships team. “That’s the position I prefer to be in. The target is on someone else’s back – at least for now. My mom has always been my biggest cheerleader through everything. She has always told me to dream big and to make sure I’m having fun while I do it.”
And while she admits she considered taking a redshirt season from collegiate competition this year as a way to prepare and be at her fastest next summer in Omaha, Luther realized that she needed the distraction of school so she didn’t put too much pressure on herself.
Because she knows taking her season one meet at time is the best path for her, she isn’t looking much farther than her next collegiate dual meet – and that includes the TYR Pro Swim Series meets next spring.
“I am not totally sure what meets I will be doing after short course season (NCAA) ends,” said Luther, who celebrated her 20th birthday yesterday. “The way I think about it, the better I can get at short course yards, the better my long course will be.
“I feel like I have a lot more to offer than I have shown so far in my career. I have put together some great practices, and I believe that my races haven’t quite lived up to what I have worked for. I am hoping that things will click into place when it matters most. I think finding new ways to train is the best way to keep improving.”
Luther admits she’s always had the dream of swimming at the Olympics – a feat she would love to share with her mom but said she feels no pressure from her to accomplish it – but knows she has to swim fast at Olympic Trials in order to do that.
Three years ago at 2016 Trials, she finished 17th in the 200 fly as a 16-year-old but feels like she has grown up a lot since that meet.
She said she was pretty naïve to what was happening around her, but left the meet “pretty heartbroken” despite achieving her goal.
It was that heartbreak that helped her have the best year of training she’s ever had leading up to her spot on the 2017 World team.
And while she didn’t qualify for her event finals in Budapest, she said she wasn’t disappointed with her swim and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“I was within two tenths of my best time from a month before in prelims, and I qualified for semifinals,” she said. “I was originally the worst-seeded American in any event going into the meet, so I was pretty nervous to see how I would swim. I learned a lot from that experience, and have since been able to control my nerves extremely well. I don’t get too nervous anymore.”
Luther said she will always love and has always loved the competitiveness about swimming as meets are the best part of the sport – hands down.
A lot of positive things have changed for her since she was little, but her love for big meets still resides deep in her heart.
“Making the Olympic Team is definitely what keeps me going in the pool,” said Luther, who recently figured out that her dream outside of the pool is to work in Major League Baseball someday. “That possibility is quickly approaching, and it blows my mind that I have put myself in a position to complete for one of those two spots.
“I am just honored to be able to race alongside such great athletes, and I know that whatever is meant to happen will in the end. My mom and I actually don’t talk about making the Olympics very much. It is one of those unspoken topics between us, I think. It would be a dream come true to join my mom in that prestigious group that can call themselves Olympians.”