Jan. 14, 2014
If more female swimmers were like Julia Hekel, watch out.
An eccentric, light-hearted, hard-working swimmer, the senior from Roswell, Ga. is one of the more versatile athletes on Frank Bradley's squad this season.
As rare as that is in the swimming world, Henkel has her specialty to thank - the 400 individual medley (or IM), for her to ability to impact any collegiate event.
Her specialty has highlighted her career, qualifying her for the 2012 NCAA Championships with an FSU record-setting time of 4:11.91 before earning All-ACC honors in 2013 with a third place finish in the race.
Now in her final year as a Seminole, Henkel is looking to close out her career with a statement.
Now, the 400 IM isn't as easy as Michael Phelps made it look.
Physically, it sucks the energy right from you. You've got to be good at every stroke or else it will expose your weaknesses. Badly.
Therefore, mentally, it's taxing and it takes strategy and pending on what each swimmers strengths are, every game plan is different.
And after your prelims swim, hours later you're expected to go faster in finals. Good luck.
"You have to go with the flow of it," Bradley said. "Every stroke is not going to be your best, so there are going to be spots where you're going to be in front, or you're going to get passed and talking about that personality she has, she can keep it light and adjust when she needs to."
It's a love-hate relationship.
When things are firing and clicking, it's the best feeling in the world and good things (best times, accolades, medals etc.) happen. However, when something either large or small is off, the race turns into a nasty bully.
And forget about the training that's required to master this race. The Navy Seals might have it a little easier. Well, not really, but it's pretty tough.
"When you get done with that event you know you just laid down some work," head coach Frank Bradley said. "It's something a little different from the rest of the events, but there's so much transition that goes into the race because every stroke is so different."
Besides the amount of work that goes into it, the beast requires a swimmer to take advantage of their strengths, not give up during their weaknesses all while finding ways to make a move during the 16-lap event, four-stroke event.
Henkel's strengths are the first and last 100's - given the fact her background stems from distance free swimming in addition to her contributions in the 200 fly this season.
This year, she's posted a 4:15.01 in the race, setting her up to have a great swim at the ACC Championships. The time puts her in the top 50 in the country, ranking her seventh in the ACC.
Now at the front end of championship season, Coach Bradley has her fine-tuning the little things in the race that will help her.
"On her front end or fly and back (legs of the race) it's 50-yards build (get faster) then have a second strong 50," Bradley said. "On the back half we're working on getting into the flow of breaststroke with the underwater work - the pullouts, which has been a weakness for her, but it's about getting into the flow that first 25-yards and being able to stick with it. Then when she switches to free, which is a strength of hers, she's starting to understand to get into that rhythm right off the bat so she can hammer that last 100 because she has the ability to do it. In training, when you get to that freestyle, you've got to gun it. It's got to be a weapon."
That weapon is harder to fire that you think.
At that point in the race, you're spent, but if you're locked and loaded for that last 100-yards, you're deadly.
Recalling the 2012 London Olympics, Ye Shiwen of China obliterated her last 100-meters in order to take the gold medal and world record. She started making her move on the back half of the breast portion, closing the gap between her and American Elizabeth Beisel, before blazing past her in the first 25-meters of free. In fact, Shiwen's last 100 split of 58.68 was almost faster than the men's winner, Ryan Lochte (58.63).
That sort of back end speed is unheard of, but the point is made - it's all about that last leg.
Thanks to a little shuffle in Henkel's training, she's already seeing what's that backend speed feels like.
"It's helped already," Henkel said. "There isn't a scientific formula for it but in the past that 100 free leg is when I'm really tired, but what I'm hoping for is since I've been racing and focusing on shorter events, I can kick in that speed."
Henkel's mid-season mark (4:15.01) was the fastest she's been in the month of November in her career. Although that time places her among the top 50 in the event, she will need to do her absolute best in order to make the NCAA meet.
Luckily, she's on track to do just that.
Henkel attended Roswell High School and graduated in 2010, however she swam for SwimAtlanta growing up.
Always a distance swimmer, Henkel's coach knew that she could be good in the 400 IM. In fact, during her sophomore season, she had a breakout swim that would have qualified for Olympic Trials in 2008 (4:55.39).
But for the rest of high school, Henkel stuck to her distance guns just because there really wasn't as many opportunities to race the 400 IM. As she signed her letter of intent to Florida State, she had "distance swimmer" in mind.
Even after her seventh place finish at her first-career ACC Championships in the 400 IM, she still considered herself a distance freestyler.
But once again, that sophomore season proved to be a career changer as she broke the FSU record en route to qualifying for the 2012 NCAA Championships in the race.
At that moment, reality sunk in.
"When I was younger, my coaches always used to throw me in the 400 IM," Henkel said. "But I always considered myself a distance freestyler. After I made that Trials cut (in the 400 IM), I started picking it up more and I started liking it more and more, but it wasn't until I made NCAA's did I consider myself a 400 IMer."
But on the upside to being a multiple swimmer, this event allows Henkel to be used in the Seminole line up, just about anywhere.
Behind the FSU record holder Madison Jacobi, Henkel ranks second on the team in both the 500 free and 1650 free events. She holds the second best time in the 200 fly at 2:02.06 and 200 IM at 2:01.96. She was a part of the FSU record-breaking, 800 free relay in 2013 and will most likely be on that relay at ACC's. Case and point, she can swim pretty much anything.
"I knew that I could contribute in a lot of events," Henkel said. "It's so nice to be able to do different things. Every year since I've been at FSU, I've had a different event schedule. At times I wish I could focus on one thing, but I enjoy challenging myself in other aspects."
Aside from her talents in the pool, Henkel's personality is one-of-a-kind which is part of the reason why she's so coachable.
"She is very eccentric," Bradley said. "Her humor, especially in tough situations is spot on. It's not just good for her, but for the team. She has the ability to turn it on and off and when there needs to be that comical side and she also know how to get serious and put the pedal down and be in the moment."
Whether she's laughing at herself, cracking jokes, running away from frogs or making the boys get the bugs out of her lane, her humor lightens the mood.
"She can get coaches and athletes laughing and she laughs at herself a lot. There's humility there." Bradley stated.
The task of keeping up with the fellas is rather tall for Henkel, but she wouldn't have it any other way.
"Sometimes it would be great to have another lady to race next to in practice," Henkel said. "But it motivates me more, knowing that I'm the only girl in the group."
But throughout her career as a Seminole, someone else has been there stroke-for-stroke with her.
"Mike (Thomas) and I have been in the same group since freshman year," Henkel said. "It never happens on purpose but every day he somehow is in the lane next to me and we get a long pretty well and I think it's because we've swum so many of the same practices that we have a respect for one another."
Henkel has adapted to some change here in her final season, mainly due to the arrival of Coach Bradley.
From day one, Bradley knew that when he'd go to battle, Henkel would be one of his first picks.
"When she's ready to go, she's ready to go," Bradley said. "Whether it's every day in practice or in a meet, there's no doubt that she's throwing down her best effort. There will be days where she's maxed out after 75 percent of the set is finished. But even though she's getting frustrated, she's still killing it. She just knows how to work."
If swimming were a game of chess, Henkel would be the queen - the most powerful and resourceful piece on the board and when played properly, it can win the game.
Since the arrival of Bradley, the Seminoles have been poised for success. Although the results are expected to be seen long-term, this year's squad has bought into Bradley's philosophies and has improved drastically. Even someone as fast as Henkel is still finding ways to improve.
"This year for her it's been about finding ways to work better," Bradley said. "She needs to use those weapons such as her turns or underwater kicks and breakouts to her advantage. Early on that wasn't the case but now, I can look over and see improvements in all of those things. That's what's really going to tie in to the rest of the season."
If the Noles are expected to make big moves in the post season, a portion of their success relies on the performance of Henkel. She could be seen in multiple relays on top of her individual load - which has yet to be determined.
Other than the 400 IM, Henkel is expecting to race the 500 free, 200 fly or 200 IM at the ACC Championships in Greensboro, N.C. which are held from Feb. 19-22.
But whatever Henkel swims in her last races as a Seminole, she's going to let her work shine. After all, she doesn't swim the toughest event in college swimming for nothing.
"At the end of the day, she just works hard and you can tell she knows what she wants and she's working hard to get there."