How Moving to the United States Improved Anna Hopkin’s Swimming Career

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Photo Courtesy: Arkansas Athletics

Anna Hopkin had the potential to finish out her college career in style at the NCAA Championships. The Arkansas senior was a potential spoiler pick in the 50, 100 and 200 free, having been seeded in the top three in all of her events.

Had she touched first in any of her events at NCAAs in Athens, Georgia, she would have been the first swimmer from the University of Arkansas to win a national championship for the Razorbacks. Arkansas has two NCAA titles; both in 3m diving from when Robin Ford won in 1985 and Brooke Schultz won in 2018.

But Hopkin lost her chance to compete in her final NCAA meet when the competition was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic that is continuing to affect the entire world.

“I was gutted to hear about NCAAs being cancelled,” Anna Hopkin told Swimming World. “The whole team was pretty torn up about the news. I think we were going to have some really fast swims!”

With the cancellations occurring six days before the start of the championships and the pandemic causing a lot of schools to shut down classes, Arkansas head coach Neil Harper had to cut the Razorbacks’ tapers short, and let them do time trials in their best events while stuck in Fayetteville.

Despite not being fully rested or shaved, Hopkin swam a 21.43 in the 50 free and 46.32 in the 100, not far off her 21.19 and 46.20 best times from this season.

Two days later on Saturday March 14, she had to book a flight home to the United Kingdom to be with her family before the borders were closed and flights would get cancelled.

It was not the way her Arkansas career was supposed to end.

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Anna Hopkin after her last time trial at the University of Arkansas. Photo Courtesy: Razorback Swimming and Diving

Hopkin is just one of many senior student athletes in winter sports who had their last collegiate meet ripped away from them because of the coronavirus. Hopkin was coming off a great SEC meet where she finished second in all three sprint free events.

“I was really happy with SEC’s overall. My 200 was better than expected. My 100, I was hoping to go around that time so I was happy with that. My 50 was a little bit off.”

Hopkin had been focusing on the 50 and 100 all season and was expected to challenge Tennessee’s Erika Brown for those titles at SECs and nationals. But her 200 free swim of 1:42.35 in finishing second to Georgia’s Veronica Burchill (1:42.33) was the individual race that stood out to her the most.

“Obviously the 100 was my main event so I was really happy that that was a best time. But I wasn’t really expecting to drop two seconds on my 200. Converting that to meters, it gives me that back end endurance for a 100 long course. I was really happy with that. I would have liked to win it but that was good.”

“I think in the last year and a half being here, I’ve worked a lot on my endurance and back end speed for the 100 specifically because the 50 has often been my main event and my take-out speed was always fine. It was that last 15 meters of the 100 that I’d struggle with so that’s something we’ve worked on. And going to the 200 yards, it’s not quite 200 meters, but it is further than the 100 which just gives me that little bit of experience in finishing that 100 strong. I think we just really worked on that side of it.”

She also put up the fastest relay split in history at SECs in the 200 free relay with a 20.2.

“When I got out and finished and Neil was shouting over to me ‘20.3!’ because he hand-timed it and I was super shocked about that,” Hopkin said. “And when he told me the official split I was like ‘oh wow, that’s like legit.’ I know the takeover was really tight but that’s the whole point of a relay: to get your takeover as tight as possible.

“I’ve definitely never had one that tight before but luckily they had the overhead cameras to make sure it was legit. That was very exciting and then an hour later going into the final of the 50, it definitely gave me confidence, and unfortunately I wasn’t able to do as good of a race as I did in the relay but I know I can do that time now and it gives me confidence moving forward.”

SEC’s was a nice check-point to see where she was ahead of NCAAs and British Olympic Trials, which were the main focus for her this season.

It is no coincidence that Hopkin was ready to peak at the Olympic Trials that were set for April. It was all a part of the plan when she committed to the University of Arkansas and swim for Neil Harper, a native of London.

“Neil knew a couple of my coaches back home. I was coming up to my final year of university in England and I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing afterwards,” Anna Hopkin said of how she came across the University of Arkansas. “And I guess because Neil knows the British system, he knew I would have two years of eligibility here so he asked.

“I would have to come out for my Master’s and get two years swimming out in the states and that would get me to 2020 and we could set that as an end goal of making the Olympics. At that point, my swimming was just kind of starting to take off and I was starting to make some teams so for me it seemed like I had nothing to lose and a lot to gain by coming here.

“Neil believed in me straight away and he had all of these things that he could improve on my stroke so I was sold.”

Before she came to Fayetteville in the fall of 2018, she was a 25.0 / 54.7 sprint freestyler in long course meters. She was good, but Harper believed she had a lot of potential in the long course venue.

After just a year in the United States, Hopkin improved to a 24.34 / 53.21 sprint freestyler and reached the final of the 50 free at the World Championships in July 2019 while representing Great Britain.

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Anna Hopkin at the 2019 World Championships. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“When I started in the US, I chatted with Neil and he gave me a check list I wanted to work on,” Hopkin said. “A lot of it was stretching out my stroke and lengthening everything out which is obviously good for long course. And so we always had the long course season in mind throughout the entire time being here.

“The end goal is to be good long course. I think we just never let that get out of our minds. My turns and breakouts, all the little things have improved which have been applied to long course as well. It’s just an accumulation of things, I think.”

To comments in Britain that she is “swimming like an American”, Hopkin says:

“I think when they say I swim like an American, they mean the turn work and underwaters, because obviously short course yards relies on that type of thing and maybe that’s something we don’t focus so much on in Britain. I think that is definitely something I improved a lot on and it’s just exciting to be with people like that now and be talked about amongst those people.”

How Anna Hopkin Got Here

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Anna Hopkin sandwiched between World Champions Bronte Campbell and Simone Manuel. A position she never thought she would be in. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

The experience of swimming against so many great competitors in the Southeastern Conference and NCAA week after week pushed Hopkin to new heights, and it’s one of the many reasons why she has improved so much in the last couple years.

Hopkin is grateful to have had the opportunity to swim and earn her Masters at Arkansas, something she did not imagine coming.

When she was 13, Hopkin had left the sport of swimming altogether.

She had swum on her own enough to stay in physical shape while doing biathlons. But when Hopkin had decided to go to the University of Bath in 2013, she couldn’t imagine being at university and not being on a sports team. So she decided to get back into swimming so she could have some concrete times to show the coaches she was worthy of being on the team.

“I wanted to compete for the university and I definitely did not think it could go as far as it has now but I just wanted to be part of a university team and compete for them and it escalated very quickly.”

She is back at the national centre in Loughborough training with Mel Marshall, coach of world record holder Adam Peaty and Worlds medalist Luke Greenbank. That was always the plan after she graduated at Arkansas, just now she is there a little earlier. She is still set to graduate in May, but will stay in Loughborough and complete her degree online.

“Mel and Neil have been super supportive and worked together to get me home and give me somewhere to train.”

“I’m taking a few days off now to decompress after everything that’s been going on while we find out more about training solutions/possibilities if there are any what with pools closing everywhere.”

“We’re just taking things one day at a time. The whole situation is way bigger than swimming and so we have to do whatever is best for the health of the nation.”

With the recent news of an Olympic postponement to 2021, Hopkin has a chance to qualify for her first Olympic team next year. She has been to the Olympics once, but never thought she would ever go back.

In 2012, like many Brits, she went to London to the Olympic Games as a spectator. Her family was unable to get any tickets to swimming, but were able to watch tennis, road racing and cycling. At that point she was just 16 and wasn’t back in the pool yet.

“I guess at that point I never thought that was going to be anything I could even achieve. It didn’t really make me think that could be me because I really didn’t think it could be. It never really crossed my mind that that could be a possibility.”

Hopkin swam a time trial while she was back in Great Britain and swam a 53.3 LCM in the 100 freestyle, which was quicker than what she swam in the semi finals at the World Championships. The fact she was unrested and unshaved after a long trip home shows she is in a good spot moving forward.

A spot in Tokyo is a very real possibility for her, and British Swimming has a strong team that can compete for medals in relays at the Olympics.

“It means a lot to be selected to be a part of that elite few that make the Worlds team because they are people I have always looked up to and aspired to be like so to be on the same team as them now and be able to race them and beat some of them it means a lot to me.”

Anna Hopkin has come a long way, and that leap of faith she took in coming to the US two years ago has paid off big time for her. The coronavirus pandemic has not been an easy time for anybody, but she has been doing the best she can to stay fit on land and be ready to go when pools open back up.