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Swimming

Former rivals Schmidt, Fink united to help Duquesne swimming

| Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, 6:39 p.m.
Senior Morgan Schmidt, a Chartiers Valley graduate, has emerged as a leader for the Duquesne women's swimming and diving team.
Duquesne Athletics
Senior Morgan Schmidt, a Chartiers Valley graduate, has emerged as a leader for the Duquesne women's swimming and diving team.
Junior Morgan Fink (South Fayette) set two team records during her freshman season at Duquesne.
Duquesne Athletics
Junior Morgan Fink (South Fayette) set two team records during her freshman season at Duquesne.

Morgan Fink remembers her encounters with Morgan Schmidt when they were middle school swimmers. The memories aren't pleasant.

Schmidt took up swimming when she was 10 and made it her athletic focus. Fink, on the other hand, had more of an affinity for soccer and had yet to start taking swimming seriously.

Still, Fink's competitive nature took over in the pool, and she wanted to win every race.

Then Schmidt would show up.

“I never liked swimming against her because she was really good when she was younger,” said Fink, a South Fayette graduate.

“She told me her freshman year (in college) that she was always afraid to swim against me,” echoed Schmidt, a Chartiers Valley grad. “Now she's almost a foot taller than me, so things have changed a bit.”

Fink gets the better of Schmidt on the rare occasions when they compete in the same event — usually the breaststroke — but for the past three years, they have been wearing the same school colors. Schmidt is a senior and Fink is a junior at Duquesne, and each is doing her part to try to make the Dukes an Atlantic 10 contender.

Schmidt came to Duquesne as a walk-on. She had opportunities to swim at smaller programs like W&J and Allegheny, but she was looking for a bigger challenge in the pool and in the classroom.

She also was looking for a less stressful environment.

“I was the best on my high school team. ... I wanted to go somewhere where I was not (the top person) because I didn't like the pressure,” said Schmidt, who will graduate with a degree in accounting. “So I looked at schools like Duquesne where I was not at the bottom but not always the center of it all.”

The going wasn't always smooth. The course load and nine-a-week practices took their toll on Schmidt, and by the end of each week, her nerves were on overload.

After Friday classes ended, all she could think about was having her weekend free. But there was still a two-hour swimming practice ahead of her, and she often would break down crying during Friday afternoon practices.

Schmidt said she still has her emotional moments but has overcome them for the most part. Coach Dave Sheets, meanwhile, has taken pride in watching Schmidt transform from that sobbing freshman to a team leader.

Though she isn't always scoring points during meets, Schmidt is important to the team, Sheets said.

“She's constantly working so hard that she really doesn't ever have a bad day of working hard,” Sheets said. “Everyone just kind of looks at it and says, ‘You know, if (Schmidt) can do this, I can do this.'

“The one thing that we say in our program is everyone has to find what their best is. It might not be being a conference champ, but (Schmidt) has found what her best is just by how hard she works.”

“She's always encouraging, always trying to get us to be our best,” Fink said. “That's what you see in a leader. She wants to be the best for this team, and she wants to help any way she can.”

Fink's contributions are a bit more tangible, but she has had to work through her own obstacles.

As a freshman, she set school records in the 200 backstroke and 400 medley relay. The early success, however, meant she would be pressed to duplicate it. She admitted to putting too much pressure on herself and going through the dreaded “sophomore jinx.”

She said this season has gone much better, and she has several runner-up finishes to show for it. She has shifted her mentality to trying to score whatever points she can.

“There's always room for improvement, and I always want to see those first places next to my name,” she said, “but any points that I can contribute to the team is what I like to do.”

Sheets, meanwhile, remains firm in his belief that Fink can be an Atlantic 10 champion before her career is done.

“She's got the ability,” he said. “Sometimes I think her biggest adversary is herself. But she's got all the tools to probably be one of the best swimmers we've ever had.”

And, he said, this team has the potential to be right there when the conference championship is contested in February.

Schmidt said a big reason for the team's rise is its closeness. Her freshman class of swimmers included 13 ladies, which, she said, accounted for more than half the team. She said the freshmen never felt like they were embraced as equals by the older swimmers, and that's something Schmidt vowed to change when her class became sophomores.

“To me it doesn't matter what class you're in. We're all teammates,” she said. “The next year when we were sophomores ... we really tried to hang out with them a lot more and made them feel like they weren't just ‘the freshmen.'

“We were kind of the class that turned the program around, I think, because we made sure that we were one team. And I know (Fink's) class tried to do that when they were sophomores.”

Schmidt would like nothing more than to be a part of a championship team before she graduates. Regardless whatever else she or the Dukes might accomplish, she couldn't be happier with the path she took or with what swimming has done for her.

Perhaps not surprisingly, she gets a bit emotional talking about it.

“Being a college athlete in general makes you a more well-rounded person,” she said. “I think when I go into job interviews, they (see) I haven't had a job during the school year. But to me, being a college athlete at a D-I program is a job.

“I try to explain to these employers that I think I've learned more from swimming than from a job I would have had during these four years. I've been around a team environment since I was 10 ... and you have to learn how to work with a lot of different personalities.

“It's cliche, but it's what your body can do if you put your mind to it. I think that can carry you over to a real job in the future. Pushing through things and not giving up.”

Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at ccurti@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.

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