By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
After an All-American career at Minnesota, Ashley Steenvoorden was hoping to make the Olympic team for London. When that didn’t happen, the two-time World University Games standout decided she would stay with the sport rather than retire. She came back this summer and won silver in the 1500 and bronze in the 800 at WUGs in Russia. She is figuring out her new program as she moves forward, which she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Did you know you had a 1500 in you like that?
Ashley: I didn’t swim that as much because it’s not an Olympic event, but I knew I was going to have a good one because at the Mission Viejo meet in June, I went a best time, so I felt like 16:10 was within reach. But to go 16:07 – I knew I was capable of it so I wasn’t shocked, but I was unbelievably happy with it.
2. What about the 800?
Ashley: That did surprise me because I haven’t swum the 800 in a few years.
3. What was Russia like?
Ashley: Oh, it was awesome! The different kind of language on bulletin boards and street names, and stores, passing them in the vans, was just so exciting. I was trying to figure out what each building was, because they even have some Thai symbols in their language, so it was just an incredible experience. We got to take a tour of the Kremlin and that was just beautiful. We got to see the different churches and mosques, which was fun.
4. People here really don’t understand how culturally rich and diverse the Russians are, do we?
Ashley: Oh, they are very culturally rich. I know from when we were going to the mosques, and even the diversity in the souvenirs you see there – they are so proud to have so many cultures. I love the U.S., but that’s something we really don’t have here – we have a lot of different cultures, but in Russia it’s a different experience because you can really see it on a daily basis.
5. The Russians have also improved a lot in swimming again, haven’t they?
Ashley: They have a lot of pride in swimming, which I don’t know if it was because they were (laughs) on their home turf (the meet was in Kazan, Russia), but you could feel the excitement in the air. It was a great environment.
6. So after some doubts following Olympic Trials as to what the future held, you aren’t done with swimming?
Ashley: No, I am definitely not done; 2012 was a hard year for me. I didn’t swim as well as I hoped at Trials. But I knew in 2012 I would still swim. I am still having fun with it. As long as I am having fun with it, I am not sure why I would stop now. I have my whole life (laughs) to work, so I’m going to enjoy this while I can!
7. How did the program work for you – I know some swimmers with even the 400 and 800 struggle with the distance, but that didn’t seem to affect you in Russia, did it?
Ashley: You know, I didn’t know how the 800 was going to go in prelims; I have never done two 1500s and then an 800. In prelims it was nice, you didn’t have to show all your cards in the money to get back (and advance). In the finals, I just wanted to swim with (USA teammate) Stephanie (Peacock, who won gold) and it felt awesome. I like to split my races, and I came back in 4:12, which is a great 400 time for me. It was just awesome.
8. How come you didn’t revisit middle distance sooner?
Ashley: You know, I really just have had more success with the mile. But I love the 400 and even the 500 in college, so I have had success with both of them. I will focus on the 400 and 800, the Olympic style events. I would love to focus on the 200, I just don’t know if I have that much speed going out. If I could find some going-out speed, I would love to focus on the 200.
9. How proud are you as a Golden Gopher of Christine Jennings?
Ashley: Oh yeah, she is awesome! I got to train with her when she was a senior and I was a freshman. It was great to train with her. I don’t want to say she struggled last year because she was hurt, but it was a hard year for her. So for her to come back and win Nationals in the 10k was just amazing, and we are all so happy for her and so proud of her.
10. So was Russia cold like Minnesota cold, or not so much this time of year?
Ashley: Russia’s weather was great. I mean, you know, it’s cold in Minnesota but you just layer up and it doesn’t seem so bad. Once it gets below 20 degrees, it doesn’t matter (laughs) how much colder it gets. It’s cold, and it stays cold until it warms up – you deal with it. Hey, it helps that we’d go to Hawaii for training camp – those three weeks were nice because in Minnesota you have a little bit longer winter than most other places.
11. Is the Big 10 getting back to the level of the SEC and PAC 12 yet?
Ashley: I really think it will – I really hope it will. The Big 10, on the men’s side with Michigan winning NCAAs, is really great. If you look at the women’s teams in our conference, we might not be as fast as the SEC or Pac 12 at the top, but if you score through 16 we are a fast conference. It’s good to see a Big 10 school win the (men’s) National title, but on both sides, men and women, the Big 10 had a lot of NCAA finalists.
12. I love the conference meets – what are those like?
Ashley: The Big 10 Championship was my favorite meet ever. I hope it keeps developing into one of the great conference meets like it was maybe in the 1980s and even the 1990s, when Michigan was so dominant. To have a resurgence would be a great thing for the Big 10. Indiana has been on the rise as has Minnesota. I am excited to see where it goes.
13. You mentioned the crowd in Russia – what was that like?
Ashley: It was really exciting. I remember being on a massage table during the finals session, and the crowd got going really loud, so I thought, “Russia must be in medal contention or winning the race going on now.’’ It was electrifying, and awesome to see that in another country. Swimming doesn’t get that here, at least not as much as football, basketball or baseball. In Russia, their team swam incredible, the venue sold out several times, and it was just a great meet from start to end.
14. And you saw a lot of foreigners who trained or swam in college here – that must make you feel good about swimming in the U.S.?
Ashley: Yeah, it does. I know some of the Russians went to USC or even train on U.S. soil, and there are standout Canadians and others who have trained here. That speaks to a lot of where swimming is in the U.S. and how good the coaching is in this country.
15. You sound pretty proud to represent America, correct?
Ashley: You wear that U.S. on your cap, and people look at you like, “Look she’s an American, she must be good,’’ because it’s hard to even make an international team in our country, that’s how good our program is, and how deep the events are. So much pride goes into representing the U.S., and being part of this powerhouse. You feel it even more abroad than here. People on our National Teams take pride in being the best in the world.
16. Was summer in Russia similar to here?
Ashley: In Russia it was kind of like summer here – 80-degree temperatures and the occasional pop-up showers. The thing that struck me as being different was there are a lot more apartments in Russia than here – and not so many housing communities. More people there live in apartments. Here if you drive 15 minutes outside a city in any direction, you will see a bunch of developments. There, more people live in apartments in the city and we didn’t see as many houses. But I will say this: The architecture in Russia is stunning, just incredible, especially the churches. The metropolitan areas in Russia are just so much more incredible than the pictures I had seen of it before going there.
17. So you are from New Jersey and you live in Minnesota. I went to hockey camps and tried out for the USHL in Minnesota so I know the accent, but I can’t place yours – it sounds more like, Ohio?
Ashley: Oh my gosh – I was born in Ohio! I don’t know where my accent (laughs) is from, because everyone asks me about it. Some say my “O” sounds like Minnesota, but I still hear a lot that I have a Jersey accent. I love being from New Jersey but being from Minnesota – I get the best of two amazing places that I love being associated with.
18. What kind of food did you eat in Russia?
Ashley: When we had a seven-hour layover in Moscow, we were able to eat whatever airport food we wanted. On a (previous international) trip to a different country the quality of food was an issue. That was not the case this time, the food was great. Places had traditional Russian dishes, but all places had a European food station and a lot of different cuisines, so we really enjoyed that.
19. You mentioned the bad downpour – one of your teammates told me there was a bit of a flood, was that in a local village or in the athletes village itself?
Ashley: Our village flooded, but not the rooms – just the streets. There was a ton of water – a guy posted a picture on Facebook of someone trying to drive through. I was actually (laughs) napping so I didn’t hear about it until I was on the bus, and by then, all the water had receded.
20. Not a bad 2013 so far after a bit of a disappointment last year?
Ashley: I heard someone say, “It’d be nice to come home with a medal,” and I came home with two of them, which was just an incredible feeling. I couldn’t be happier with how this season went. This was my first year as a post-grad, and when you train with the team they are tapering in February and March while you are still going hard on the volume. So that was an adjustment. But I got to represent my country, be with awesome coaches and teammates, see another part of the world, and win two medals for the United States, the greatest country in the world – so yes, it’s definitely been (laughs) a better year so far!