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McDaniel swim coach follows Olympian to London

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Jeff Hiestand has spent the last 11 years beside the pool at McDaniel College, where he has coached five individual conference champions in eight events.

In two weeks, he'll still be near a pool, but in a far different location.

On Aug. 9, Hiestand will head to London for the Summer Olympic Games. He will watch proudly as former McDaniel swimmer Suzanne Stettinius represents the United States in the pentathlon.

The one-day competition features five events: 200-meter freestyle swimming, fencing, pistol shooting, horse show jumping and a 3,000-meter cross country run.

Hiestand coached Stettinius for three years on the McDaniel swimming and diving team. When Stettinius began her preparation for the Olympics, he became her personal swimming coach.

The Hanover, Pa., resident spent nine years as an assistant swim coach at McDaniel before being promoted to the head coaching position three years ago.

But this is the first time he has trained an Olympian.

"It's rewarding, because she can always call herself an Olympian," Hiestand said. "I'm proud of her, because this is a really big accomplishment. From a coaching aspect, my No. 1 one concern for Suzanne is that she's prepared to do her very best at that moment."

For Stettinius, the road to London was not smoothly paved. A native of Sparks, in Baltimore County, she grew up playing many different sports, a strategy that eventually prepared her for the five-event pentathlon.

A 2006 graduate of Hereford High School, she attended Bethany College in West Virginia for three semesters, then transferred to McDaniel.

Before her junior year at McDaniel, Stettinius fell from a horse and broke her neck. She missed nearly the entire 2009-10 season, but came back with a strong senior campaign that included team-best performances in two distance freestyle events.

At the conclusion of her senior season, Stettinius and Hiestand decided to work together in her quest for the Olympics. She was a distance standout in college, and the only swimming event in the Olympic pentathlon was the 200-meter freestyle.

"Jeff moved me from a sprinter to a distance swimmer in college," said Stettinius from the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. "I dropped almost 20 seconds off my time in the 200 in three years. And I liked his approach. He's straight to the point."

Stettinius, who started thinking about the Olympics as far back as 2005, doesn't consider swimming her strongest sport in the multi-faceted competition.

"I grew up on the back of a horse," said Stettinius, who was raised on a horse farm. "Horseback riding is my best event. In fact, it was the Pony Club Tetrathlon, which combines riding, swimming, running and shooting, that first introduced me to the pentathlon."

She qualified for one of the two spots on the U.S. Olympic Teamby posting one of the top overall scores in World Cup and world championship pentathlon competitions, which were held in Brazil, Hungary, Russia, Italy and China.

Now in final training for the London Games, she is ready to pursue a medal. The top 36 pentathletes in the world will compete for gold, silver and bronze at the Olympic Games.

"Initially, I was relieved when I learned that I had made it (onto Team USA) because I had been working so hard," said Stettinius, who found out she clinched a spot on May 27.

"This is really amazing, especially being a McDaniel graduate and having the chance to compete in the Olympics," she said. "My siblings have never seen me compete in the pentathlon before, and their first time to watch me will be in London."

Stettinius' parents, Willie and Avis, and her siblings won't be alone in the stands. Hiestand will be in London, cheering on his protégé. He won't be poolside, since Stettinius and the other American pentathlete will be mentored by three USOC coaches.

"Even though I'm listed as Suzanne's swimming coach, I won't be an Olympic coach there," said Hiestand, a father of four who will travel to London on Aug. 9 with his wife, Shannon. "The United States pentathlon team already has a staff of three coaches in place.

"Still, I can't believe I'm going," he said. "From my standpoint, it's always nice to be recognized. But this is really Suzanne's party."

Logistically, the pre-Olympic training wasn't an easy task for Hiestand, who had to balance Stettinius' swimming schedule with those of the other sports.

"When I wrote her workouts and then watched her practice, I always had to think a step ahead," Hiestand said. "Her next workout wasn't necessarily going to be with me in the pool, because she might be coming from or going to fencing or running. I constantly managed where she was, whether she might be fatigued, and whether we might save her legs for the running workouts."

Hiestand understood that he was dealing with a very determined athlete.

"Not many Division III athletes go on to the Olympics," said Hiestand, a 1993 UMBC graduate who was a distance freestyle swimmer for the Retrievers.

"She was always willing to do what needed to be done. Suzanne understood that whatever level of success she achieved was going to come from hard work," he said. "If she made a mistake, she was on top of it before I could even say anything. At that level in any sport, you're going to find athletes who are not willing to accept defeat or failure, and will just keep pushing."

While he didn't make any Olympic predictions, Hiestand admitted he wouldn't be surprised if Stettinius was in medal contention.

"The best pentathletes are the ones that are above average in all five — but not necessarily No. 1 — in any of the individual events," he said. "I think Suzanne has that potential (to win). She just needs to keep herself within each sport as she's doing that sport, and then move on to the next one with a clear mind."

Hiestand hopes that the experience of coaching an Olympian isn't a once-in-a-lifetime thing for him.

He's also aware of the effect that Stettinius' status might have on younger swimmers in this area.

"If kids just see a name on paper or a swimmer on a TV screen, it doesn't make much of an impression," he said. "But a lot of the kids around here knew Suzanne, because they've seen her around.

"They can relate to her, and now (the Olympics) can become a goal down the road for them."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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