It’s not the most common thing for a high school athlete to traverse clear across the country to arrive at their college destination.
Fortunately for fourth-year head coach Sage Hopkins and his San Jose State Spartan women’s swimming and diving program, Heather Denman did just that. The native of Brookeville, Md., has made a giant splash onto the scene in her first season of college swimming and paid huge dividends thus far.
And she’s only getting started.
The freshman has compiled quite the honors list in just over three months of the 2008-09 campaign, helping lead the Spartans to presumably their best start in program history.
“Actually, I wasn’t planning on coming anywhere out here,” admits Denman. “I thought I was going to stay on the East Coast. During the recruiting process, you get questionnaires from a lot of schools. I got one from San Jose State. My dad told me that I might as well fill it out. When I was offered the opportunity to come out on a trip, at first I wasn’t sure, but again my dad told me that it would be a rare chance and a good experience.
“San Jose State was my first trip, and I loved it. I wanted to cancel all of my other trips, but my mom wouldn’t let me. I went to South Carolina, Kansas, Indiana and Clemson, but I knew I wanted to come here. I wanted a change, just wanted something completely different. I was looking for a coach who reminded me of my club coach (Dan Haines of Flying Gull Aquatic Club, based in Laurel, Md.), because I’d been with him since I was eight, and that was Sage. You can just tell that Sage really cares about you. During the entire recruiting process, I could see that he really wanted me. Also, the girls were so nice during my recruiting trip. We just clicked.”
Collectively, San Jose State is 12-1 and riding a 12-meet dual win streak since a season-opening loss at No. 2 Stanford back on October 3. Among the 12 victories are initial triumphs in the Hopkins era against two-time defending Western Athletic Conference champion Nevada, and area foe UC Davis. In addition, the Spartans won the inaugural WAC Shootout, posted a program-best second-place finish at the annual Nike Cup, and produced another runner-up effort at the Ayres Hotels Relay Invitational.
Individually, Denman has provided the only three NCAA consideration qualifiers by a San Jose State swimmer, and been a part of six school-record swims. She became the first Spartan to earn UCI/Nike Cup Most Outstanding Female Swimmer honors, winning three individual events at the meet after no other San Jose State competitors had earned first-place honors there since 1997.
Denman has turned in the top marks in the conference in four events this season: the 100 and 200 backstroke, and the 100 and 200 butterfly. With her selection this past Monday, January 12, she is now the first Spartan to garner WAC Swimmer of the Week distinction four times in a single season. Denman has 25 individual event victories on the year, and has not been defeated in 23 straight, since getting edged out in the 200 fly on October 11.
The list of superlatives goes on from there.
“Yeah, definitely,” says Denman when asked whether success at this level came faster than even she anticipated heading in. “Club (swimming) has such a different speed. I’m really good at kicking, and in club, I’d have to go at a certain interval so that everyone else could make it. But then I would be horrible at pulling, and so everyone would also have to go slower because of me. Coming out here, you’re more focused on your strokes and everything else. In club, I swam all freestyle. Now I go back to my club team, and I can’t really do freestyle, because I’m mainly used to butterfly and backstroke.
“The WAC Shootout was our second meet after Stanford. I hurt myself the first day, but I was so excited to swim the second day. I remember I went 55.72 in my 100 backstroke leg (of the 400 medley relay). For like a year and a half (before that), I could not get under 56 (seconds), and I was so shocked, but it’s because we do so much kicking. That is one of my strengths, and it really helps me in my races. I just notice that intervals are a lot easier to make, and with being in Division I, it’s a team sport. Club is so much more individual. College is more a team (sport), and there is not as much pressure. You have so many people cheering for you. In club, you swim your races, and maybe you’ll have a few teammates cheering for you, but it’s a lot different. In college, you are winning meets as a team, and everyone has to play their part. It’s a lot more fun. The atmosphere is much more intense, and you just get so fired up. You’re bound to go faster.”
Growing up, Denman spent most of her time in Montgomery County between Brookeville, a small, woodsy, suburban town, and nearby Olney, about half an hour’s drive north of Washington, D.C. She graduated in 2008 from Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md., as a high school All-American and school record-holder.
“My grandparents have a pool in their backyard, and one day my grandpa decided to teach me,” explains Denman about her introduction to swimming. “How I got started competitively, was my mom (Eleni Altobelli) got me signed up for a pre-team, and the coach, who actually ended up being my coach until I came here, said, Well, let’s see if she can swim the full length of the pool.’ So, I dove in and did it really easily, and he told me I should be on the competition team, and not the pre-team. I was six or seven.”
And with it 72 degrees in San Jose according to Yahoo! Weather, as compared to 16 in Brookeville on the afternoon of Thursday, January 15, her thoughts on spending the holidays back home?
“It was freezing. I got off the plane and said, I want to go back,’” she jokes. “My parents were just laughing at me, because I would be in my house, where it was completely warm, but I would have blankets over me. When I went out, people said I looked like an Eskimo, because I had so many layers on.
“I just hung out with my family and trained. Coming to college, you realize how important your family is. Over the summer, before I came here, my parents always wanted to spend time with me, but I kind of wanted to be with my friends. (During the holidays), I wanted to be with my family and just like watch movies, because I missed everything. Seeing my two younger brothers (Alex and Louie) was great, too.”
With four dual meets left ahead of the 2009 WAC Championship in San Antonio, Texas, February 25-28, Denman looks forward to bigger and brighter things still to come both for herself and for her team, and she will then have three years remaining in the college ranks. She will enter the WAC meet as the odds-on favorite to become San Jose State’s first conference Freshman of the Year, and look to turn her consideration qualifying marks into automatic ones to earn her way to the NCAA Championships, back in Texas in College Station, March 19-21.
The team is what Hopkins stresses day in and day out, however, and the team’s goals are clearly what Denman will be focused on come February. San Jose State has never finished higher than fourth at the WAC Championship.
“Nevada is going to be our hardest meet (left before the WAC Championship), but I feel like if everyone has the right mindset, we can win. I know we can,” concludes Denman.
“I’m so nervous for WAC, because obviously I’ve never been there. Everyone just tells me what the atmosphere is like. You’re so pumped, you just want to race, and if you’re on the deck cheering, you want to be in that pool and racing. I really think we can get in the top two, but I also think that we can get first and win it. That’s our whole team’s goal right now. I think if we train really, really hard the next few weeks, we can do it. I’ve never been to Texas. I’m excited.”
2008-09 Friday Features
September 19 - David Richmond, Football
September 26 - Yonus Davis, Football
October 3 - Hiroki Akiyama, Men's Soccer
October 10 - Homecoming Spartan Style
October 17- Jessica Ingram, Women's Soccer
October 24 - Coye Francies, Football
October 31 - David Haefele, Men's Cross Country
November 7 - Travis Jones, Football
November 14 - Men's Soccer Seniors
November 21 - Football Seniors
December 5 - Lauren Mar, Swimming
December 12 - Student-Athlete Success Services
January 16 - Heather Denman, Swimming