The NCAA Division III women’s championships, hosted by the College of Wooster, get underway Thursday and continue through Saturday at the Corwin M. Nixon Aquatic Center on the Miami University campus.
Pettersen, a senior who specializes in the butterfly events, is one of only seven women from the Northwest Conference to qualify for the national championships this season.
Prior to 1995, Whitman routinely qualified several swimmers each season for the NAIA national championships. But when Whitman and other Northwest Conference schools shifted their athletic affiliation that year to the NCAA (Division III), the prospect of landing a berth at the national championships becamse a much more daunting task.
A few Whitman swimmers came close to qualifying in recent years. Alexis Jinbo-Dorn missed the invitation line in the breaststroke events by two or three swimmers in 2006.
"The NCAA nationals are incredibly competitive," Whitman coach Jenn Blomme says. "There are so many more schools in the NCAA that it is a huge accomplishment just to make it to the national meet. The Northwest Conference is very strong nationally and yet we still only send a handful of conference swimmers to the national championships every year."
Hard work, pure and simple, is what made Pettersen the first Whitman swimmer to qualify for the NCAA championships, Blomme says.
"Erin has always been one of the hardest workers on the team, but this year she raised the bar even higher," Blomme says. "She brought more discipline, more intensity and more enthusiasm to every practice. She really fulfilled our goal of making the most of every practice opportunity, every race and every meet. She came into this season stronger mentally than I have ever seen her."
"As a senior and captain, Erin has been a great example to her teammates about what it takes to achieve this type of success," Blomme adds. "Given that Whitman hasn’t competed at the national level since we were in the NAIA, her accomplishments this year show the rest of our team what is possible."
A team captain for the past two years, Pettersen earned her ticket to nationals by posting a strong provisional time (2:07.71) in the 200-yard butterfly while placing second at last month’s NWC championships. That time obliterated her Whitman school record by more than three seconds and sends her into the national finals as the tenth seed.
The 200-yard butterfly preliminaries are set for Saturday morning. Swimmers with the top 16 times advance to the Saturday evening finals. The top eight finalists (in all events) earn NCAA All-America honors. Competitors placing ninth through 16th earn Honorable Mention recognition.
Pettersen also races this week in the 50-yard freestyle (Thursday) and the 100-yard butterfly (Friday).
She posted a provisional qualifying time in the 100-yard butterfly at last month’s NWC championships, placing second in 58.16, which lowered her school record by nearly two seconds and makes her the No. 17 seed at nationals.
As the runner-up in both butterfly events at the conference championships, Pettersen finished second in each case to Whitworth University senior Samantha Kephardt, the defending national champion and record holder at the longer distance.
"Samantha is a remarkable athlete, and she is used to swimming out in front of the competition much of the time," Blomme says. "I think she, her coaches and teammates were surprised to see how close Erin came to catching her at the conference meet. This shows what great competition can do for your own success. Having Samantha out in front of her was hugely motivational for Erin, and I’m sure Samantha is a better competitor for having someone like Erin chase her down."
In her third event at last month’s conference championships, Pettersen placed fourth in the finals of the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 25.04. Earlier in that same evening of competition, she swam a career-best 24.95 in the first leg of the 200-yard freestyle relay.
Pettersen enters this week’s national meet as the 38th seed in the 50-yard freestyle. Her best time is about nine-tenths of a second slower than 16th seed.
The national championships also give Pettersen a final shot at one of Whitman’s oldest school records. Michelle Zinanti set the 50-yard freestyle school record at 24.75 in 1991. “Erin has a great shot at getting that record,” Blomme says.
Pettersen, who lives in Kirkland, Wash., is a graduate of Seattle’s Lakeside School. She is accompanied at the national championships this week by assistant coach Jamie Kennedy.
Blomme, nearing the end of her eighth season as head coach, is at home this week on maternity leave. She and husband Adam Kirtley, the Stuart Religious Counselor at Whitman, recently welcomed a second daughter, Isabel, to their family.
"I am obviously disappointed not to be at the national championships, but I am grateful that Jamie was able to step in," Blomme says. "He is a talented coach and will be a great asset to Erin at nationals. I am so excited for her. She has so many reasons to be proud."
Blomme also extended her thanks to the entire Whitman swim team for the role it played in sending the program’s first competitor to the NCAA championships.
"I really want to note the importance of the team in every individual accomplishment," she says. "Erin could not have accomplished what she did this year by herself. Every swimmer in the lane next to her at every practice, every relay opportunity she had, every workout in the weight room with her roommate and teammate Nancy Alexander – all of those experiences contributed to her success."