Senior swimmer Blaise Wittnauer-Lee will finish her career at Seattle U with five individual WAC gold medals, eight school records, and the distinction of being the Redhawks' first WAC championship swimmer and NCAA qualifier.
There’s one question Seattle University swimming coach Craig Nisgor gets from every recruit who’s ever walked into his office: “Have you ever coached anyone to the NCAA championships?”
“Up to this point, the answer has been ‘no,’” Nisgor said. “Now, it’s ‘Yes,’ That’s pretty big.”
Thursday morning, when Redhawks senior Blaise Wittenauer-Lee stepped out on the pool deck at NCAA Championships in Indianapolis wearing a swim cap with the Seattle U logo, she forever changed Nisgor’s ability to answer that question.
Wittenauer-Lee raced in the 200 individual medley prelims on Thursday, and even though she finished 59th and did not make the finals, she became the first swimmer in Seattle U program history to represent the Redhawks at the NCAA Division I Swimming Championships.
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But she’s not done yet. Wittenauer-Lee qualified for NCAA championships in three events. She will compete in the 100 breaststroke on Friday, and in her best event, the 200 breaststroke, on Saturday.
Wittenauer-Lee went into the 200 breaststroke at WAC conference championships in Houston, Texas last month knowing she’d have to clock a sub-2:10.00 to qualify for NCAAs.
So when she touched the wall and looked up to see 2:09.85, she knew she’d made it – and clinched a WAC gold medal at that. Wittenauer-Lee’s time in the 200 breaststroke was the 24th-fastest nationally, and it also shattered a 14-year old WAC record.
It was a surreal moment for the senior swimmer who has dreamed of making it to NCAA championships since her sophomore year of high school, when she watched her brother, Quincy Lee, represent Ohio State at the nation’s biggest collegiate swim meet.
“I’ve always been competitive with him, so when he qualified for NCAAs, I was like, ‘I have to go too,’” Wittenauer-Lee said. “He qualified his junior and senior years, and he swam his last college meet at NCAAs and went really fast. He spoke of the experience with such pride and honor, and hearing about that and seeing him complete his goals really encouraged me to go after mine.”
However, it took a few years for Wittenauer-Lee to develop the confidence to match her athletic potential.
She signed with Seattle U out of Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore. because Nisgor’s honesty and vision for the program – at the time still adapting to its transition back to the Division I level – resonated with her.
“The coaches were very up front about what the school had and didn’t have,” Wittenauer-Lee said. “They were honest and open the whole time about wanting it to be the best school for me. I fell in love with the atmosphere of the team.”
So it didn’t matter that, unlike some of the bigger schools whose scholarship offers she’d turned down, Wittenauer-Lee would have to participate in fundraising efforts throughout her collegiate career to raise money for things like training trips and meet travel. For instance, the Redhawks swim team teaches swim lessons and coaches a masters team to fundraise for their annual winter training trip to Coronado.
“We’re a really active school and we really work hard to get the perks some other teams get from their schools,” Wittenauer-Lee said. “But that really motivates us to work in the pool.”
Wittenauer-Lee arrived in Seattle at a time when Nisgor was trying to build and stabilize a program wracked by an exodus of athletes after it made the jump to Division I.
“She was the right fit for Seattle U. She wanted the size school we were, she wanted the education, she wanted to be part of a program that was up and coming,” Nisgor said. “When we took over (in 2012), they were going from Division II to Division I and we realized that there were going to be some bumps and bruises too. We realized she could help bring us to the next level.”
Wittenauer-Lee’s times were immediately competitive even during her freshman season, but it wasn’t till her junior year that things started falling into place. As she got faster in the pool, Nisgor pushed her to change the way she approached her goals psychologically.
“We talked about being at the Olympic Trials. Not going to trials, but actually being there – where we were gonna go, what we were gonna eat when we were there. It was just a change of mindset,” Nisgor said.
Perhaps the mental gymnastics worked, because last summer, Wittenauer-Lee became only the second swimmer in program history to represent Seattle U at U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
She qualified for trials in the 200M breaststroke, and went into the event ranked 109th in a field of 124 swimmers, but finished 75th overall with a time of 2:35.78.
Swimming at Olympic trials gave Wittenauer-Lee a much-needed confidence boost that served as the foundation upon which she built her dream senior season.
“When I made trials, it really sunk into me that I belong in this elite group of swimmers, and when I swim fast, it’s not a fluke. It’s because I trained hard,” Wittenauer-Lee said. “I got this understanding of the ability I have and the ability to go faster, and this year, I was super motivated to just go hard and leave it all in the pool.”
This year, she won three WAC individual gold medals, set two WAC records and two school records, and was named WAC Female Swimmer of the Year. She will finish her Seattle U career with five individual WAC gold medals, eight school records, and the distinction of being the Redhawks’ first WAC championship swimmer and first NCAA championship qualifier.
NCAA Championships are both the beginning and the end of an epoch in Wittenauer-Lee’s swimming career. Unlike trials last summer, where she went into the meet just happy to have made it there, she’s hoping to make it out of qualifiers in at least one of her events in Indianapolis.
“Last year, making it to trials was just a dream come true. Last year at trials, it was like ‘you did it.’ This year I feel like I belong here,” Wittenauer-Lee said. “Making it to NCAA’s was different. I made it in three events and feel confident in my ability to be here.”
Above all, Wittenauer-Lee says she’s proud to have helped Seattle U’s up-and-coming swimming program hit a new milestone.
“It’s just an honor to be here. I feel like I’m representing my school. It’s a really big honor to be the first person (from Seattle U) to ever qualify for NCAAs,” Wittenauer-Lee said. “It’ll be cool to remember later in life that I was part of Seattle U’s program getting really big.”