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Harper embracing team-first mentality to lead ‘Cats

To an outsider, swimming seems like an individual endeavor; athletes compete against the clock, and the “team” aspect seemingly only pertains to relays.
According to Wildcat swimmers, however, that isn’t the case at UNH, where a focus is put on doing what’s best for the team. Few athletes on the roster have embraced the team-first mentality quite as well as sophomore Jess Harper.
“[UNH head coach Josh Willman] said, ‘A good swimmer isn’t one that says, Coach I can do this for you, a good swimmer is one that says, what can I do for the team?’” classmate Bridget Miller said. “And I feel like [Harper] really embodies that.”
Harper is an Easthampton, Massachusetts native that Willman said was recruited primarily as a distance specialist. She’s had undeniable success in the distance events—wins in the 500- and 1,650-yard freestyle events at last year’s America East championships—but her true value of the team can’t be understood without examining her versatility.
“We knew she could do back and fly, obviously,” Willman said. “But her versatility’s really been able to help us out in dual meets.”
Harper’s ability to fill holes and still be a top finisher has helped this year’s young team to remain competitive, despite graduating six talented seniors last year. But being a team player has cost Harper chances to compete in her specialty races, and has likely cost her individual accolades.
Despite breaking the team’s 500-yard freestyle record, winning the 1,650 by nearly an entire lap, taking second place in the 100-yard butterfly and contributing on UNH’s relays at the conference meet, Harper was passed over for Rookie of the Year honors last season. That award instead went to Harper’s classmate Liza Baykova, who also tallied two individual wins, a second-place finish, numerous relay contributions and a record-breaking performance.
While Harper never knows what she’ll be swimming until she’s entered in the races, Baykova is a fixture in the sprint freestyle events.
“When you see the same person winning the same events every week, they tend to stand out,” Willman said. “Jess could be winning the 1,000, the 500 every meet we swim, but she’s being moved around.”
Instead Harper’s raced in nine different events in her short UNH career, though she hasn’t let that stop her from competing in each event at a high level.
This year’s team features only one true backstroke specialist, Linnea Lemerise, and one true butterflier, Vivi El-Sibay. Both are freshman, and so Willman has used Harper in both butterfly events and both backstroke events on numerous occasions. She’s responded with dominant performances, winning the 200-yard butterfly, 200-yard backstroke, and 200-yard individual medley every time she’s raced them in dual meets.
Harper recalled a team meeting last season that highlighted the adjustment from club swimming to the team-centric attitude that the UNH program requires.
“For club swimming, when you get in the water, you’re racing the clock,” she said. “But when I came here, that was one of the biggest concepts that was so new…your time honestly doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you’re getting points for the team.”
Harper’s ability to focus first on the team’s needs and goals and then her own isn’t lost on her teammates. Miller was in the water racing during Harper’s record-breaking 500-yard freestyle, coming in third place behind Harper and last year’s senior captain Oneida Cooper. Miller had broken the 5-minute mark for the first time.
“I turned to Jess to say good job, and all she did was give me a hug and say, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” Miller said of their post-race interaction. “What she did [breaking the team record] didn’t matter.”
While Harper’s talents will no doubt eventually garner her the individual praise that she deserves, it’s clear that the sophomore is focused on a different goal: helping to return UNH to the top of the America East conference in February.

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