That was the first feeling Emily Launer felt as a freshman walking into the Big Ten swimming and diving championships. Launer was near the finish of her first year at Northwestern, a Big Ten university with famously rigorous academics, not to mention the opportunity to compete against some of the nation’s top athletes. Launer went to Rosary High School, so you’d think the sheer bigness of it all would make for a bit of a culture shock.
The biggest shock, though, of Year No. 1 at Northwestern?
“Having boys in my classes, that was kind of different, kind of a shock,” she said with a laugh.
Now a sophomore, Launer actually feels very much at home in the small-school atmosphere of Northwestern. While it is a Big Ten school, it’s the smallest in size.
But not even Northwestern can escape that big-school mentality at an event like the Big Ten championships. Launer just wrapped up her second season as a distance swimmer for the Wildcats, and it’s that conference meet she calls something like she’s never experienced before.
“Freshman year, I was really nervous, and I really didn’t know what I was doing, everything was new. And this year I felt a little bit more experienced, so that made things a lot easier,” she said. “My freshman year, I was right about my best times, and then this year it was a lot easier to come back and swim faster with that experience underneath your belt, it made things easier. Also, the meet is insane, there’s so much energy and everything, so it was awesome to be back and getting to experience that again.
“It’s a little overwhelming at times, but at the end of the day you’ve got to realize that it’s just a pool and everyone else is a swimmer just like you. Coming in as a freshman, I was definitely pretty intimidated.”
But intimidation is something Launer has always been able to overcome. She’s been swimming forever, calling it a “family tradition” after she took the baton from her dad, who swam at DeKalb High School and Northern Illinois University.
But around a certain age, as she explains it, someone decided to make her try swimming really long distances. And it stuck.
“Let’s just say as a swimmer, 12 or 13, your coach throws just about every event at you, and if you can hold on, then all of a sudden you become a distance swimmer, I guess,” she said.
How far does she swim?
Well, at this year’s conference championship meet, she competed in the 1,650-yard freestyle. That’s just barely less than a mile.
“There’s practices and times where you’re not quite sure if you’re going to make it through,” Launer said. “When you do, it’s a pretty cool thing. So I think being a distance swimmer is definitely something I’m very grateful for.”
Launer had her pick of colleges coming out of high school, selecting Northwestern over Nebraska, Notre Dame, Iowa and Miami (Ohio). She’s thrilled with the decision she’s made, loving the mix of small school and big competition.
“Big Ten swimming is the best conference I could have ever picked,” she said. “The energy is amazing, the (conference championship) swim meet is unlike any other swim meet I’ve ever attended or competed in. … It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It’s been a great experience, and I’m very grateful I still have two years left.”
• Vinnie Duber writes the weekly On Campus column for the Kane County Chronicle. If you have a column suggesiton on local athletes competing in college, contact him at email@example.com.