Senior Spotlight: Sarah Hettenbach

Nov. 16, 2011

As Kansas swimmer Sarah Hettenbach steps to the blocks during the remaining half-dozen meets of her senior season, she will do so looking to surpass the expectations she and her coaching staff have set for her. The task, while tall, is not one she is accustomed to falling short of, after all the 5-3 freestyler managed to earn the title of captain, while being a walk-on, during all four of her years.

“Being a walk-on may have been motivation for me to push myself harder,” Hettenbach said. “I say that just because I felt like I had more to prove.”

While the Abilene, Kan. native knew she had to earn her spot on the team, her coaches made a point of letting her know that goal was more than attainable.

“Clark (Campbell) and Jen (Fox) have done a really good job of not making me feel like I am a walk-on,” Hettenbach said. “They would always tell me that I have the exact same opportunities as everyone else.”

“Sarah has been one of the best acquisitions we have had on our team,” said KU head coach Clark Campbell. “Where she came from, being a walk-on, this was a big step.”

Given a chance to reflect on her collegiate career thus far, Hettenbach does see some of those strides she has made inside the pool and out.

“Coming in my freshman year I was a different person than I am now for sure,” she remembered. “I would say I was a little more uptight, but I think college has been really good in changing my views on things and being more open. That’s why I think it really shows the growth that I have had through the four years I have been here, that my coaches and teammates respect me enough to select me as a captain.”

A number of those changes, the home-schooled high school student had to learn on the fly, including becoming a more vocal leader, after being named captain heading into her senior campaign.

“I have always been someone who leads by example, so the vocal leadership aspect (of being a captain) is something that I have definitely been working on this year,” Hettenbach said. “It has been a challenge, but at the same time, it’s great knowing I have the support of my other captains, teammates and coaches.”

“Leading by example is definitely more comfortable for her, but what’s nice is that we are seeing over the years, that she is becoming a more vocal leader,” Campbell thought. “She has overcome something that is not a strength for her and is doing a very good job, talking to her teammates.”

While this season has put the senior in situation, which are out of her normal comfort zones, her coaches are not surprised to see how far she has come, given her focus and dedicated work ethic.

“Sarah is probably one of the most coachable girls on our team,” assistant coach Jen Fox said. “She is very hard-working, in and out of the pool, so it is quite refreshing to have that senior leader that is self motivated and motivates others as well.”

2011-12 Senior CaptainsOne of those teammates Hettenbach often finds herself in the thick of things with is fellow captain Shannon Garlie. Like her senior counterpart, Garlie also has had to take on a special leadership role within the team, and appreciates the walk-on’s ability to communicate with others on the team.

“I don’t think I could be a captain without her,” Garlie said. “We communicate well, so it is easy to work with each other.”

Garlie sees her counterpart as a calming force in what can sometimes be stressful situations.

“Sarah is really light-hearted, so if there is issue that we need to deal with, I know that it’s going to be okay because of her positive attitude,” she said. “The harder stuff we deal with is easy to take-on right by my side.”

While Hettenbach has made sizeable strides as a leader in the locker room, she is also developing a stellar reputation for herself, inside the classroom.

“She is awesome in school and is academically very strong,” Coach Campbell said. “She is competitive in the classroom and is a very hard worker.”

That hard work paid off for the student athlete as she earned Academic All-Big 12 honors and was named to the Big 12 Honor Roll during both her sophomore and junior seasons.

Not to be outdone by her academic accomplishments, her athletic prowess has also caught the eye of her coaches, as during her junior campaign, she had a breakout performance during the 2011 Big 12 Championships in Austin, Texas, where she set career best times in the 100 freestyle (52.76), 200-freestyle (1:56.59) and 50 free with a 24.20 time during preliminaries.

“She has had to learn a lot along the way about what it takes to be good in the sport of swimming,” Campbell said. “That has all culminated during her senior year, with her being selected captain.”

Even though the walk-on turned captain has come a long way, she is far from becoming complacent. Hettenbach still has some high expectations when it comes to finish strong in her final year.

“We always go through our in-season goals with Clark and then post-season Big 12 goals,” she said. “The big one for me is to score at Big 12’s and finish in the top 16 because last year I was 25th and wanted to get into that ‘C’ Final in the 50 (free).”

Hettenbach finished last year’s 50 free at Big 12’s in Austin, Texas with a time of 24.20, just 44 seconds shy of reaching that elusive third heat.

111611aaa_829_7170173.jpeg“I have started the season out very well, so I think it is definitely a possibility,” she said. “I have been progressively improving throughout the year, which is why I feel I can head into Big 12’s with a lot of steam and momentum.”

That attitude is exactly what her coach appreciates and hopes to see in future walk-on’s to come through the KU program.

“Sarah really encapsulates what we want in a walk-on,” Coach Campbell said. “She knows what she brings to the team and she is aware of what she needs to get better on, while still seeing the big picture.”

If Sarah Hettenbach’s past accomplishments are any indication of her future success, than Jayhawk fans should play close attention to those KU swimmers scoring at Big 12’s, this February in Columbia, Mo. That is because the senior is willing to put in the time to make it happen.

“Hard work is obviously crucial but I love swimming,” she said. “I would not be swimming 20 hours a week as a walk-on if I did not love getting in the pool, with the support of an awesome group of teammates every day.”

That can do and positive outlook has taken this swimmer, from the small town of Abilene to new heights inside the pool on Mount Oread. With a little more hard work, who knows how fast she can swim and what future goals or expectations she can surpass.