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Monday, October 5, 2009
Updated: October 7, 10:20 AM ET
Record-setting Bowen follows older sister's lead

By Christopher Parish
ESPN RISE Magazine

When Hannah Bowen was in elementary school, she loved watching her older sister, Jordan, swim. Jordan would crouch very still on the starting block, then explode into the water and begin churning out laps.

Hannah Bowen
Hannah Bowen is a four-time Minnesota state swimming champion.

Hannah wanted to swim just like her sister. So when Jordan made the Stillwater (Minn.) varsity team as a freshman, Hannah signed up to compete at the high school level as a seventh-grader. Her brother was one of Stillwater's top boys' swimmers at the time. Her mom had been a lifeguard and her dad was a swimmer as well, so the family's ties to the water were well established.

But it was Jordan who really inspired Hannah to compete for Stillwater. And the state record book will never be the same because of it.

"My sister was always one of the top varsity athletes," Hannah says. "She was my role model, basically, and she still is. I definitely wanted to be just like her."

Now a junior at Stillwater, Hannah is a four-time state champ who can claim the title of fastest girl in Minnesota prep swimming history. She broke state records in winning the 50 and 100 freestyle races at last year's Class AA state meet, and she anchored the 200 and 400 free relay teams to state bests as well.

Ironically, when Hannah started swimming, emulating her sister wound up holding her back. Jordan was a distance specialist, but Hannah never felt comfortable in those events and didn't make varsity in seventh grade. "I wasn't very good," she says. "But I wanted to stick with swimming."

There were plenty of other activities she enjoyed -- volleyball, softball, dance, skiing and cheerleading were just some of her favorite pastimes -- but there was something about swimming that tugged at her. She joined a club team so she could focus more on the shorter races. When she returned as an eighth-grader, she made the Stillwater varsity squad, this time as a sprinter.

But she still wasn't at the same level as Jordan, who picked up a silver in the 500 free as a sophomore. Hoping to be as successful as her big sister, Hannah kicked her training into overdrive and started swimming year-round. As a freshman, she finished 11th and 12th, respectively, in the 50 and 100 free at state.

Then it happened.

During the first meet of her sophomore season, Hannah posted a time of 52.1 seconds while swimming the freestyle leg of the 400 medley relay. It was a time that would have put her in medal contention in the 100 free at state a year earlier.

"Suddenly she was just swimming better than she ever swam before," Stillwater head coach Brian Luke says. "She was positively possessed."

Even Hannah couldn't believe how quickly her success came. And her times were falling in the 50 free as well.

"I broke 24 (seconds) for the first time, and I kept building," she says. "Once I broke the school record, it kind of hit me."

Hannah Bowen
Bowen lays claim to being the fastest girls swimmer in Minnesota high school history.

For Hannah, it was a season of disbelief. First she was breaking personal bests, then school records. She didn't think she would make the top eight at state to reach the championship final in either the 50 or 100 free, but she did in both. Standing on the block before each event, crouched in the same position she used to watch her sister take, Hannah felt a swell of newfound confidence.

"I was seeded second (in both events), but I knew I was faster than my seed time and I was faster than the girl seeded ahead of me," Hannah says. "I wasn't really focused on [state records]. I didn't want to be disappointed if I didn't get it. I just focused on getting my best time. When I did it, I was kind of shocked."

As Hannah reaped the rewards of her hard work with multiple state records, it's no coincidence that Stillwater also benefited -- vaulting from fourth as a team in 2007 to Class AA team champs last fall.

Hannah hopes do it all again this season, but repeating at state is just one of many goals. She's started branching out and competing in national events like this past summer's U.S. National Championships in Indianapolis. One of her idols, 42-year-old Olympian Dara Torres, won the 50-meter freestyle. Hannah finished 66th.

"It made me realize there's still so much more to achieve," Hannah says. "It kind of humbles you a lot. Most of the people there were at the college level. I thought, 'If I can be at this meet now when I'm this age, when I'm their age I want to be that much faster.'"

"She's the fastest person in the history of Minnesota girls' swimming," Luke adds. "But when there's college kids, international kids, California kids at some of these other meets, it gets really fast, and that's good. It keeps your eyes focused outward, and that will help her a lot."

She'll stay focused in part by staying close with her sister, who is a freshman at the University of Connecticut.

"I tell her everything," Hannah says, "and she's always been there for me."

For the first time, Hannah will be on a swim team without Jordan. But one glance at the state record book makes it clear Hannah is just fine on her own.

Christopher Parish covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.