Greg Hansen: Ex-Cat Chandler already has the smile of winner

2011-09-28T00:01:00Z 2012-12-04T14:00:59Z Greg Hansen: Ex-Cat Chandler already has the smile of winnerGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 28, 2011 12:01 am  • 

Annie Chandler is a world-class smiler. If you sit in a room with her, you will become infected.

She breaks into a smile as she talks about waking up at 5 to lift weights. "Try that sometime," she says. "Ha, ha, ha, ha."

Her eyes sparkle when someone mentions the gold medal she won last month at the World University Games. "I was blown away," she says.

Every topic produces a cheerful reaction. Her stipend from USA Swimming to train for the 2012 London Olympics? She beams: "I'm finally independent."

Her spot on Team USA at next month's Pan American Games? "It's sooo exciting."

Her summer championship at the Paris Open? "Amazing," she says, with emphasis.

A few days ago, a film crew from Indianapolis arrived at her house to get some video for the NCAA Woman of the Year award. Because Chandler will be at the Pan Am Games on the night of the ceremony, they asked if she would tape an acceptance speech in advance.

For one of the few times, there was no smile.

"What do you say to that?" she asks. "I have so much respect for that award and for those who have won it. I was almost speechless."

Actually, Chandler, who graduated from the UA in December, has already won. No matter what the NCAA announces on Oct. 16, the NCAA record-holder in the women's 100-yard breast stroke has already crossed the finish line.

"Annie is a gem," says Becky Bell, the UA associate athletic director who operates the department's distinguished CATS life-skills program.

"Do you realize she is already the Pac-12 Woman of the Year? She is one of nine finalists (out of 471 nominated) for the top student-athlete award in all of women's college sports. They're picking one for the entire country. There's nobody from Stanford, Cal, Duke or Harvard. But there is Annie Chandler from Arizona."

To say there's some history here - the UA swimming team and the NCAA Woman of the Year - would be to say that USC has won a few Heisman trophies.

Arizona swimmers Whitney Myers (2007), Lacey Nymeyer (2009), and Justine Schluntz (2010) all became the NCAA Woman of the Year. So did UA high jumper Tanya Hughes in 1994.

One school. Four winners, maybe five. What are the odds?

It is an honor that spans all three NCAA divisions and more than 600 schools. It has been won by, among others, a sprinter from Cal-Davis, a basketball player from Tennessee, a shot putter from Wake Forest and a swimmer from small-school Kenyon University.

"For Annie to be in the final group of nine is beyond phenomenal," says Bell. "It is equally weighted on academics, athletics and extracurricular activities. She wasn't just a swimmer here. She was involved in so many other things, on campus and in the community."

Chandler arrived in Tucson in the fall of 2006 billed as perhaps the nation's top high school breast stroker (and so she was). She is from an athletic gene pool; her father, Thomas, played in the NFL and Canadian Football League and a brother played football at Texas Tech.

College swimming isn't easy. It's consuming. Chandler smiles (again) when she remembers "trying to find little pockets of time to do homework," as she was becoming an 18-time All-American.

It was her good fortune to connect first with ex-UA assistant coach Greg Rhodenbaugh, now the head coach at Missouri.

"Greg was so level-headed," she says. "He helped me keep swimming in a healthy perspective. If I had a rough race, he'd shrug and say, 'It's a good thing it's just swimming.' That type of balance kept swimming from swallowing up my whole life."

And, once Rhodenbaugh left, she became a pupil of UA assistant Rick DeMont, a former world-record holder.

"Rick's such a kid at heart," she says. "He knows how to look at swimming as play time. He made it fun for me to loosen up and enjoy the sport."

Perhaps that's why Chandler is so engaging and upbeat. At 24, she deals with swimming on her terms, just as Myers, Nymeyer and Schluntz learned to do before her.

Myers, who recently married former UA All-American swimmer Simon Burnett, lives in Southern California and is training for the Olympic trials. Nymeyer, now married, is director of the UA's Rec Center aquatic facility. Schluntz is working on a Rhodes Scholarship in Oxford, England.

When Bell and Chandler were putting together the Woman of the Year nomination form, Chandler sometimes paused, uncertain what to list among her qualifications.

"Whitney, Lacey and Justine all had the same questions," says Bell. "They're all so humble. They would all say, 'Can I really win this?'"

They can. They did.

It is impressive company that Annie Chandler keeps.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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