After World Champs Debut, Dakota Luther Returns Confident and Motivated

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By David Rieder.

With no offense to the other swimmers at Junior Nationals, the caliber of competition is not nearly as high as at the last meet Dakota Luther swam at: the FINA World Championships.

Luther’s summer has been a whirlwind world tour ever since the 17-year-old shocked most of the world when she finished second behind Hali Flickinger in the 200 fly at U.S. Nationals. One year earlier, she had not even made the semi-finals at Olympic Trials, finishing six hundredths out of the top 16, and all the sudden she had booked her ticket to the World Championships.

Up next was a three-week trip to Europe, complete with a Team USA training camp in Croatia—Luther was the team’s second-youngest member—and then eight days in Budapest for the meet itself. On the fourth day, Luther swam the 200 fly and advanced to the semi-finals, where she finished 15th.

Even if she would have had to drop more than a second off her lifetime best to make the final, Luther admitted that she would have loved to finish in the top eight. Still, she’s not complaining about the experience she got in Budapest.

“I think I was happy to semi-final, to get a second swim and take the experience in,” she said. “I think it’s good for this year, going into the next three years, just to do that.”

Getting to swim in front of a raucous crowd of 12,000-plus at the Duna Arena in Budapest during her semi-final race is a memory that she won’t soon forget.

“I love when people say my name (over the loudspeaker)—that was my favorite part about finals,” she said. “The crowd was amazing there, so it was hard not to swim fast.”

Her first experience on a senior U.S. national team was a formative one, from experiencing the dynamics of that sort of international team to realizing that she can indeed perform very close to her best on a major stage. At Worlds, Luther’s prelims time of 2:08.86 was just 0.15 off her lifetime best.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“They’re all happy for each other, no matter how they swim,” Luther said, referring to the U.S. team she was a part of. She added, “I think I learned more about myself. I can still perform at that level—I was 2:08 again, so I was very happy about that.”

So after all that and only one week at home in Austin, Texas, why did Luther head east for yet another meet, one with a fraction of the crowd and hype of World Championships? Well, she wanted to swim some other events.

“At Nationals, I’d say the 200 fly definitely went as well as expected,” Luther said, referring to the race where she qualified for Worlds, “but everything else was just okay, so I wanted to come here and go some best times in the 100 fly and 200 free, swim some other stuff.”

Getting through another taper meet has been difficult, Luther admitted, since she has tried to hold her taper for another two weeks instead of putting in real training after Worlds. With that in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that every race, Luther said, has been “a mental and physical battle.”

She swam the 200 fly once again to start the meet and ended up fading to third behind Olivia Carter and Lindsay Looney. Under the circumstances, the time (2:09.58) was by no means bad, but Luther admitted that it “kind of hurt to lose” the event she calls her “baby.”

But Luther’s effort two days later in the 100 fly more than made up for any lingering disappointment—and that swim might open up some opportunities for her outside of just the four-lap butterfly race.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Luther won the event in 58.59, breaking the meet record of 58.69 set eight years ago by Felicia Lee. The effort made her the eighth-fastest American this year and the sixth-fastest American 18-and-under swimmer all-time.

“I thought maybe I could go a 58—58.99,” Luther said. “I don’t really train sprint, so I was really surprised with the time and really happy with it.”

To round out her week in New York, Luther finished seventh in the 200 free in 2:01.18, and she is also entered in the 200 IM Saturday. On the horizon is a much-deserved respite from swimming, a chance to digest her breakthrough summer.

But already, Luther’s confidence has surged—how can it not, after the shocking manner in which she made the Worlds team? And after her Team USA experience in Budapest, she has plenty of motivation to get herself back there over the next several years—and hopefully to make a major impact in her signature event.

“Seeing how people train and how excited they get even though they’ve been to that level is really motivating for me,” Luther said. “Women’s 200 fly in the U.S. isn’t that good, but I want to help it get there, whether it’s me or someone else. I think that’s really inspiring.”

Watch a video interview with Luther after her 100 fly win at Junior Nationals: