By Matt Franzblau
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
London, England is a far cry from tiny Derby, Kan., but next summer, Kansas swimmer Stephanie Payne will have a chance to send herself there for the 2012 Olympics.
The senior will be competing in two events during the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb. (June 25-July 2), and may even be able to add a third before her final season at KU is through. For Payne, this journey began almost four years ago as she perfected a relentless work ethic.
“Every time I go to practice I feel like I should work hard,” the ‘captain’ explained. “Because what’s the point in going if I am not going to try as hard as I can?”
That attitude has translated into much success for the Olympic Trials qualifier. Currently, Payne holds two school records in the 200 fly (1:59.07) and the 400 IM (4:11.94). She also was one of three seniors on her team to have earned the title of captain. This success is no surprise to her coach, Clark Campbell, who thinks these records and accolades can be traced squarely back to her time in the pool.
“Stephanie is one of the hardest working kids I have ever had the pleasure of coaching,” Campbell said. “It has just been so fun to see how she has improved since she has been here.”
Since her first swim for KU back in 2008, Payne has shaved close to two seconds off her time in the 200 fly and nearly four and half seconds off her best 400 IM performance.
“She will be the poster child for years to come for Kansas swimming, because our niche in the market is that kids come here and get a lot faster,” Campbell thought. “The amount of improvement that Stephanie has done has been remarkable.”
Even though her hard work has paid off, that does not mean Payne expected to be going to Omaha for trials next summer.
“The first one (200 fly trial cut) definitely surprised me because I was not shaved or tapered,” she remembered. “It was also surprising to get the 400 IM, but I knew I had a pretty good chance to get the additional cut since that is a better event for me.”
Payne’s 4.51.46 time in the 200 fly was nearly five seconds faster than the 4:55.89 standard set by United States Swimming.
Her successful summer performance also came at a time when she was beginning to accept a more responsible role on the team. Her teammates selected her, along with fellow seniors Sarah Hettenbach and Shannon Garlie, to serve as captains for the 2011-12 season.
“It has definitely changed the way I see things whenever a decision has to be made,” Payne said of her captain experience. “You kind of have to make a decision and know that some people are going to like it and some people are not. Ultimately, we (the captains) have to decide what’s best for the team.”
“Stephanie is an amazing captain because her enthusiasm and drive to lead the team is essential for our success,” said fellow captain Sarah Hettenbach. “I know I can count on her to keep me on task and to get things done as far as planning or anything else goes.”
Payne’s new role also helps motivate her at some of the toughest times, like in the early hours of the morning, when most of those in the central time zone are still asleep.
“On average I get up around 5:20 a.m.,” she said. “It gets pretty tiring after a while, but if I was missing practice or showing up late, that’s not being a good role model. So lately, that is what has been a motivator for me to get up and get going.”
The swimmer’s smooth transition into the role of captain may be in large part because of a special quality her coach and fellow teammates see in her.
“Stephanie, in her vocal leadership, does not mince words and will let you know exactly where you stand,” Campbell explained. “It is something that some athletes take well and other athletes do not, which is okay because Stephanie does it for the reason of becoming better.”
“Steph is awesome at both encouraging people and calling them out if they do something that is a little out of line,” Hettenbach explained. “It’s great to hear her during tough sets because it helps keep morale up and makes us work harder.”
Another unique quality Payne brings to the pool is the energy and excitement she possesses before each and every race. This includes a pre-race routine that initially caught her coach by surprise.
“I have done the same warm-up since I was 10,” the now 21-year old said. “I hit myself, and just shake it out. Everyone on the team can tell you I get very nervous, but having my own routine calms me down. I am still amped and nervous, but it is a good nervous.”
In fact, Payne’s pre-race routine drew much attention to her during her freshman year when those nearby were not yet used to her unique motivational techniques.
“At first I didn’t know how to take it,” Campbell remembered. “It was so frenetic that I didn’t know if it she was putting out too much energy, but (as a coach), you realize that each athlete has different buttons and you try to let them be themselves. Stephanie just needs to find the right amount of energy to expend before a race.”
“I just have my own routine and if I don’t do it I kind of freak out,” Payne explained. “I have come to realize though if I do not have time to do it, I will still be okay.”
As to what type of energy she will be putting out come the Big 12 Championships in February, Payne is aware it will be less than if she was ending her swimming career at the same time.
“I am really happy that I am not finishing my career at Big 12’s, just because I don’t want to get emotional,” Payne said. “I think it will help keep my head straight because I will realize that I won’t be quite done.”
In between then and late June, the KU record holder will have four solid months to prepare herself for what could be her last meet. Like any swimmer who will be at Olympic Trials next summer, Payne is honored for the opportunity to represent her country.
“That is the best way I could ever imagine ending my swimming career,” she said. “I am really excited to be there because I have always wanted to make trials.”
“Performance-wise, our goal for trials is to go and get best times,” Campbell said. “You have to do that in preliminaries and see what happens. Personally, I want all of our athletes who go to enjoy their experience because each generation has one, maybe two, opportunities to do this. This will be the way Stephanie finishes her career and we want all of our athletes to finish on the highest note possible.”For Payne, there is no doubt that no matter how fast or in what place she finishes during Olympic Trials next summer, she will feel like she left all she had in the pool. That’s because the work ethic and leadership skills she has perfected up until this point will not allow her to do otherwise.