Ladies and Gentlemen, savor Katie Ness’ final two seasons at Duke—the Blue Devil swimming program may never see a more talented swimmer ever again.
“We’re always going to have trouble getting the Katie Ness-es, whose mom and dad went to Duke, and wanted to come to Duke,” head coach Bob Thompson said of his program. “Katie Ness could get big money in other places, but she was committed to come to Duke.”
In her first two years, Ness has compiled an extensive list of personal accomplishments. Last season she became the Duke’s first ACC champion in 23 years when she swam the 200 IM in 2:00.27. A month later she made her first trip to the NCAA Championships and represented the Blue Devils in the 200-yard IM and the 100-yard butterfly. She holds six school records (100 free, 200 free, 100 back, 200 back, 100 fly, and 200 IM) and has been a member of four record-breaking relays (200, 400, and 800 freestyle relays, and the 400 medley relay). Despite her litany of accomplishments, Ness still remains a woman of steadfast, almost frustrating, modesty.
“I just always work really hard, and then see what comes of it,” Ness said. “[Breaking records] is great. I have great coaches and we have a positive program here; the team is on the rise. It’s not just me; there are other people who are improving, and that’s exciting.”
Ness wasted no time establishing herself as one of Duke’s greatest swimmers. Already a high school state champion in Ohio, Ness burst onto the scene her freshman year when she finished first in the 200 IM and third in the 200 backstroke at the George Mason Invitational, the Blue Devils’ second most important meet of the year. At the ACC Championships, she went on to finish second in the 100 and 200 butterfly and fourth in the 100 back.
“Katie Ness had success before she got here,” Thompson said of her fast start. “She wasn’t a surprise—we knew who she was before she came here.”
The unexpected occurred the following season, however. After suffering a knee injury that forced her to miss the first half of her sophomore season, Ness came back in time to put together a stellar performance at the ACC Championships.
“That was surprising,” Thompson said. “After not swimming for at least four or five months—she didn’t swim a stroke until we went down to Florida after Christmas—so what she did on very little training shows how gifted she is.”
Ness waited patiently to get back into competition.
“At first I thought it was just a bruise,” Ness said. “I just thought I would have to wait a couple weeks before I could get back to swimming, so having to have surgery was a little overwhelming. They had a great doctor and I had great physical therapists and they got be back pretty quickly. I had a really good base from training a lot the summer before, so I think that helped me get me back into things more quickly.”
Ness has manifested her talents in all four strokes. Although any individual medley specialist needs to be proficient with all her strokes, Ness has dominated previous Duke record holders—many of whom had specialized in just one stroke—in all aspects of the sport except besides the breaststroke.
Ness displayed her flexibility at last year’s ACCs, where she led off the Duke 4x100 freestyle relay with a 51.45 leg that broke the Duke individual record in 100 freestyle, perhaps swimming’s premier event.
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“That was a shock,” Thompson said simply.
What is left for Ness to accomplish? Ask around the Taishoff Aquatics Center and the answer is unanimous: success at the NCAA Championships. Last season, Ness fell just .23 seconds short of making the consolation final in the 200 IM and finished 18th. She also finished 30th in 100-yard butterfly event.
“I was disappointed last year,” Thompson said. “As good as she swam at ACC’s I thought she had a real good shot to score at NCAAs. I still think she does. It’s a big jump from getting to that meet and being an All-American, the idea is to score and become an All-American. She’s got two more years to do that, and I think she’s very capable.”
Despite the disappointment, Ness still has fond memories of last year’s NCAA Championships.
“Making NCAA’s is actually a more difficult meet to get into than the Olympic trials,” Ness said. “So to get there is really cool, and so is being able to swim with some of the best swimmers in the country. I thought I swam okay. It wasn’t a crash and burn, which I’ve been known to do.... I would like to place and score points; that would be exciting. If I get back, that would be my goal.”
As with any top-notch swimmer, the possibility of Olympic glory has always lurked in Ness’s life. With the next Olympic trials four years away, however, considerable outside training would be necessary.
“[Ness] would have two more years [at Duke], and then two dead years before the next Olympics,” Thompson said. “So it would be very, very difficult unless she commits herself to training. That’s not Katie’s lifestyle. Katie’s very bright, she’s a very good student, she’s very committed to her academics; she’s very involved in her church. I think it would be very hard for her to take a couple years and just train for the Olympics, and that’s a good thing. I’m not saying she doesn’t have the potential to do it, I don’t think she desires to get to that next step, because of what it would cost her to sacrifice in her life.”
And right now, life is pretty good.