By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Christine Jennings had left training on the west coast after an injury derailed her career and Olympic dream – despite giving it her best shot at Trials – and she headed home to Colorado. The Minnesota alum was not even sure swimming was going to be in her future. And then something happened at Open Water Nationals late last month: Christine won the 10K, and a place on the National Team with it, along with, of course, the trip to World Championships to represent the U.S. She talks about the unlikely road, and what she’s learned about herself, in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. Go back a little further to start out – how did you end up going to Minnesota to swim in college?
Christine: I never really expected to go to Minnesota. My Dad found an old file last night with my acceptance letter to Minnesota, and my old ACT and SAT. I had written down the schools I was interested in, and it was Georgia, Clemson, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and Teas A&M. But the more I learned about Minnesota, the more I thought I belonged there.
2. Why the SEC lean?
Christine: I lived in South Carolina until the start of my junior year of high school, which is probably why I was looking at the southeast so much.
3. I knew about some other places, but you also lived in the southeast?
Christine: My Dad moved a lot, mainly because of his job. I was born in Delaware but we lived on the border in Pennsylvania, then we moved to Houston. We moved back to Pennsylvania, and I swam for the Delaware Otters. I don’t have these conversations often (laughs) because no one knows what I am talking about on the Otters – apparently they don’t exist anymore? – but Andrew Gemmel knows because he used to live there. Anyway, from there we moved to the area of Greenville, S.C., and then to Colorado. I have basically lived everywhere except the northwest.
4. You swam out at Mission Viejo for a while too recently, right?
Christine: I swam with Coach Rose for two years, I think it was August 2010 to July 2012. It was a great experience. Coach Rose is a great coach and he is very old school, and we worked well together, especially initially. At my age though, I’d have a couple of good practices and struggle. We both knew I probably needed to try something else.
5. Back to Delaware for a sec, isn’t there a Nelson Deibel story with you somewhere from the archives?
Christine: Oh no, yes (laughs!). I think it was 2010, and Nelson was working with Nike, and he visited our program. I had not seen him since I was 8 years old – he was the one who taught me how to swim breaststroke in Delaware. I said, “I was the one who dropped your Olympic medal.” He said, “Well, don’t worry about it, a lot of people have dropped it since then.” He was just such a class act, and always a true champion.
6. So you are training in 2010, and all of the sudden in the summer of 2011, everything changes – can you take us through it?
Christine: In the summer of 2011 I fractured my leg, broke two bones and sprained my PCL. I was in the Queen of the Sea race of Rio, and I was running up to the finish and my leg went the opposite direction. Coming back from that was rough, for sure. I never really healed, and didn’t have time before the qualifier for Portugal (in 2012). So in February, I was competing, and hadn’t been off crutches that long, and I remember at the Missouri Grand Prix that year, for the finals of the 400, I couldn’t walk out. I had to explain to the ref what was going on. I got back into it too quickly, there just wasn’t enough time.
7. You seem like you are in a good mindset right now, correct?
Christine: I am truly in a better place, that is a fact. I can see it. Other people can see it. I am happier most of the time, I see joy in just about everything versus focusing on my inadequacies. I have become a happier person. I have a lot more friends and I am comfortable in the community around me more than ever.
8. How did you end up back in Colorado?
Christine: I moved back in July 2012. Literally right before (open water) Nationals in April I thought I might move home because I was not very happy. Two days after I got back to California from Trials, I packed up to move home to Colorado. I joined RallySport in Boulder, Colorado, and Coach Grant Holicky. We sat down and discussed things. I told him straight up, “I am not sure how much longer I’ll be swimming, maybe just this year.” I knew since I was finally healthier again, I could go to some big races, some World Cup races, and just see where I am.
9. What did Coach say?
Christine: He agreed I should take it year by year. Grant is really an amazing coach. I’ve really done well under coaches who use a lot of positive reinforcement. I really respond well to positive reinforcement.
10. You credit your new situation with helping you on this part of your journey?
Christine: In July and all through the end of last year, Grant is the one who got me to where I am right now. We clicked right away. I have been around swimming for so long, that I understand what my body needs. I coached myself after college for one year, learned what I am capable of and what’s my breaking point. I know when my breaking point is coming. We can collaborate on my training; we have a back and forth where I say I think this, and he says what he thinks. I am so grateful for him, and so blessed. Another good thing about him is that I can be very negative, again focusing on what I am not instead of what I am. There is now this constant voice in my head telling me I can compete against anybody. I went into Nationals, and I thought, “I am this good. I can do this.” That made me calmer because going into that race, I wasn’t worried about the outcome, which is weird for me. I got a little bit ahead during the race, and I realized, “I can definitely win it.”
11. What is the big mental adjustment?
Christine: Hope. You can’t go forward without hope. I really learned a lot this past year about myself. You can’t keep living without hope. Hope is something that is a key in my life. I have had other people ask me questions about, “How do you keep hoping, keep going for it, trusting your Lord, considering everything you have been through?” I look back and honestly tell them I couldn’t have gotten through it without hoping and faith, and believing something good would come out of that. If I hadn’t done that, I would have fallen and been a wreck. You need to have faith and hope.
12. That’s a big part of your life?
Christine: Faith, yes, is a huge part of my life. Currently I work with my church here, help with event coordinating for concerts and speakers who come and visit. And it’s a little bit of work experience at the same time.
13. How much does it mean tangibly to be on the National Team?
Christine: The stipend is so important. When I got back (from Nationals) someone asked, “So do you have income now?” I was not planning to continue swimming after this year, which might be a shock for some people. But it wasn’t something I was planning on. But now, I’m going to keep trying. God blessed me with this for now and He has me on a path. I’m going to just keep on going and believing in him that He has me on this and he is going to provide for me to do what He wants me to do. I am operating in His will. That’s all I was asking for out of this. So I guess (laughs) it’s going to be swimming for another year.
14. Did you get to a point where you didn’t enjoy swimming?
Christine: I never hated it. But it can wear and tear on you. You have to be strong and overcome that. You get to low points, and you have to be able to stand back up. I saw the triathlete Conrad Stoltz wrote on Twitter something about how when “you get hurt and all your sacrifice adds up to nothing, do you have what it takes to put it all on the line again?
15. You seem to be around a lot of triathletes now, do you work with them?
Christine: I train with a lot of good, talented triathletes, about half the time, because they have two other disciplines. The other half of the time I train with high school athletes. It’s definitely a different environment, but I’m also with this really unique and special team. It reminds me of going back to the college atmosphere where people are always supporting you, backing you and cheering you on. I remember my first practice last year with this team, and I heard, “Christine you’ve got this, come on!” all these voices across the pool saying, “Good job, let’s go, keep it up” – just such good, positive comments. For such a young team to have that, it really had a big impact on me.
16. This unique team, training with them, has motivated you hasn’t it?
Christine: Motivated and inspired me. I got to go to sectionals in March, which is a big competition but I went as the chaperone as well. Being with them I have been put in a role model position, and it has taught me how to be a good person in their eyes. Remember how I said I can be negative sometimes? I have learned to control that better. Sometimes before the race, swimmers say I’m so sore, or that it hurts – I can get like that before a race. But now I am so good at switching that off. You have to keep that in check, because you have to care about the other swimmers. That kind of talk can affect other swimmers’ mindsets. You go cheer on your teammates. I noticed myself thinking that way at sectionals before my mile and I realized, “I don’t need to be complaining about anything right now.’’ All of the kids watched my race, and jumped up and screamed when I finished. It’s a great team; I know they are young, but it’s been awesome to be a part of what amazing things they are doing.
17. Will you go for 2016?
Christine: I try never to rule out anything. You never know where life is going to take you. You have to be open to it. You have to enjoy the ride. I have definitely tried not to control things. When I was in college, I would have these projects, and I am such a details person that it would consume me. But I know now that you have to have fun with it. I will swim another year, and hopefully it will take me further. But I am having fun with it, and having a blast with this group.
18. You’ve had a lot of change but it has worked, right?
Christine: I’ve done well with change. Coach Rose had asked me, “What is the longest period of time you have been with one single coach for an uninterrupted period of time?” It was with Kelly Kremer at the University of Minnesota for those four years. So Coach Rose said, “My goal is four years” – and we made (laughs) it half of that! But I did what was best for me. Really, I could have stayed swimming with Kelly for a long time, but moving back here to Colorado and swimming for Grant, I think all indications are that this could go for a good long time.
19. What does it mean to have won Nationals, especially in light of all you’ve gone through?
Christine: To describe it in a general term, it was amazing. The fact that I am going to worlds has not sunk in yet. The fact that I won doesn’t surprise me. That’s what I was saying earlier with Grant’s voice in my head; coming out of winning at Nationals, I wasn’t that surprised. I had hope. I trained to win that race, I was at that level, and I was competing at a high level, so I was able to go for it. I felt confident enough that I could win it, and I did.
20. And you found your way home, but on your terms this time, right?
Christine: You just can’t let things bring you down. Things happen, and you go through a lot of ups and downs, whether it’s something you did to yourself, an injury, or letting other people affect the way you feel about yourself. I have come back and made some great friends, and with some hard work, I have put myself back together. I didn’t do it alone, but I had to make that choice to move forward, and push it to another level. You have to surround yourself with the right people to do it, but you also have to be ready mentally to do what it takes to get there.