Summit of prep careers: Spuds' Hehn strives for nobility, Olympic trials and state glory

A 3-year-old Ronnie Hehn wanted to learn about sharks, not knowing he'd become one. There were just two problems: he couldn't read and he couldn't stop.


A 3-year-old Ronnie Hehn wanted to learn about sharks, not knowing he'd become one. There were just two problems: he couldn't read and he couldn't stop.

"So he did it all summer long," his mom, Karen, said, "and I read every book to him. He doesn't do anything kind of half. ... He has to know everything about everything he gets into."

OK, so Hehn, by his own admission, is a textbook perfectionist, and there are side effects -- like a learned versatility and a self-effacing drive. But without them, the Moorhead senior swimmer would be another Stretch Armstrong body-double with the glide of an ice skater. He'd be two parts shy of a medley.

Instead, he's choosing from a list of NCAA Division I schools; is able to say "Olympic trials" with a straight face and will cap an All-American prep career by competing in four events at the Minnesota Class 2A state swimming and diving meet this weekend at the University of Minnesota.

"Times, places can't be controlled," said Hehn, 18, the defending champion in the 100-yard backstroke and defending runner-up in the 200 individual medley. "I want to swim at an unbelievable level and that's all I can do."


If that sounds manufactured, well, it sort of is (even though it's also true).

Spuds coach Pat Anderson employs an array of progressive principles, the core of which translates to: Train the body and the mind. First, every swimmer completes every event at least once during the regular season. Second, the team studies the work of sports psychologist Alan Goldberg. The former has made Hehn hard to beat -- he placed first in all 11 events at some point this season, going unbeaten in duals. The latter has eased his mind -- even though Goldberg teaches that big-meet racing is 95 percent mental.

The other 5 percent? Body hair and a drag suit, both of which Hehn -- in contradiction to his competition -- hung onto through the Section 8 meet. And all he did was win four titles, including season-best times in the 200 IM (1:56.96) and 100 breaststroke (1:00.76), and swimmer of the year honors.

"His curve has gone like that," Anderson said, his hand mimicking the takeoff of an airplane. "He hasn't had a plateau."

Not since transferring from Fargo North after his sophomore year, anyway. But the 6-foot-2 Hehn has been climbing charts his entire underwater life.

"I was still wearing water wings at 8," Hehn said. "They weren't even holding me up anymore."

By 9, he was a North Dakota champion in his age group in the 50-yard breaststroke and qualified for a zone meet in Lincoln, Neb. Older sister and eventual Olympic trial qualifier Keri, already a "phenom" according to their mom, didn't.

"It's been pretty natural," Hehn said, "but by no means did it come easy."


Fast forward nine years and Hehn is faced with a swimsuit issue: Which one to wear? At a recent practice he donned maroon University of Minnesota trunks, but don't read too much into that. Not yet, anyway. The Gophers, where Keri finished her college career, are on the short list, along with Florida and Rutgers. But in a non-revenue sport whose pinnacle is an amateur event (the Olympics), Hehn's pen stroke is as important as his breaststroke; scholarship money is almost non-existent.

Good thing he's fifth in Moorhead's senior class.

"I have to do my best," Hehn said, "whether in the pool or in class."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Terry Vandrovec at (701) 241-5548

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