Just 16 months from being a bloated swimming burnout victim, sophomore Johanna Gustafsdottir owns almost half FIU’s swimming record book. That figures.
After all, Gustafsdottir’s favorite stroke, breaststroke, is her worst stroke and she never swims her favorite race, the 200 breast. It’s her favorite because there’s no pressure, but she swims best in the big meets. She feels Miami is “typical me,” although not much resembles her hometown, Reykjavik, Iceland.
“A lot of times, she’s not someone you can just figure out and know exactly where she is at all points,” FIU swimming coach Randy Horner said. “As a coach, you want her to perform on a daily basis like her results prove she’s capable of. She’s an odd character sometimes. But swimmers are odd. Not too many are normal. You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to stare at a black line 20 hours a week year-round.”
She might not be the best swimmer in her family — her younger sister, Eyglo, swam for Iceland in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
But, by the book, she’s well on her way to being the best swimmer in FIU history. After the Mizzou Invitational last month, Gustafsdottir owns individual records in the 100 freestyle, 200 free, 100 backstroke, 200 back, 200 individual medley and swam on the teams that set the records in the 200-free relay, 400-free relay, 800-free relay and 200 medley relay.
Six of those records were set at last winter’s Sun Belt Conference Championships when she became the first FIU swimmer to be named conference Swimmer of the Year.
“The girls kept telling me all season, ‘You’ll be so surprised when you come to conference, you’re going to do so well,’ ” Gustafsdottir said. “I was saying: ‘I’m not like that. I usually swim the same times all year.’ Then I come to conference and I beat my best time by 14 seconds.
“I don’t know if I was more shocked or my coaches.”
That’s the kind of raw talent she displayed during her teenage years on Iceland’s National Team and that Horner gambled remained there when she wanted to return to the pool.
Gustafsdottir loved swimming so much that when a hand injury kept her out of the pool, she went to practice anyway, just to watch. Then, at 18, after 11 years of swimming, four on the national team and several national records, she quit.
“I was just sick of it,” Gustafsdottir said. “At home, you swim with the same people all the time, and I was just tired of it. Tired of the group I was swimming with. The only thing I could find was quitting. I wasn’t getting any better because I was tired of it.”
Also, she admitted, “It was kind of tough when [her sister] beat me the first time and took my record” in the 200 backstroke.
In another piece of irony, it was going to her sister’s meets that sparked a desire to get back in the pool. The daughter of a former team handball national team member said for two years she “did nothing; gained weight.”
In 2010, she contacted Inga Bateman, mother of University of Florida swimmer Sarah Bateman, about coming to the United States to swim for a school.
Inga Bateman got in touch with Horner. Horner told Gustafsdottir while her old times showed her ability, he needed to see more of that in her current times.
She got back in the pool and, from August 2010 to February 2011, showed enough improvement that Horner thought something special could still be there.
“Sometimes, you recruit talent based on potential,” he said. “It was a little bit of a gamble. She still hadn’t done the lifetime levels she’d done. We’d seen progress in a time frame that we were pretty impressed by.
“It really was a gamble,” he continued. “But us being our first year, first recruiting class, we were more apt to take a gamble on a kid like that.”
Gustafsdottir recalls her earliest practices, in August 2011: “I was dying at practice. It was really hard for me. By the end of last year, I’d lost 35 pounds.”
Without having to spend the year getting into her best shape and knowing her high end, she said there has been more focus on peaking to make NCAA cut times during the year, then peaking for the NCAAs.
“Last year it came as a surprise to qualify,” she said.
Aid Horner: “She’s an athlete that frustrates you midseason because you’re like, ‘Where the hell is my NCAA swimmer who should be going within three or four seconds of her end of the season time in season?’ She can’t. Either physically she can’t or mentally she hasn’t flipped that switch yet. Who knows? She’s one of those when rested, when the mind switches, when you get engaged in championship mentality, she grows to a level that I have not seen out of her at that point.”