Nov. 7, 2007
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 2, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2007-08 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY -- When Molly Houlton was choosing a college, she wanted to veer away from one area of security before splashing into another.
"I wanted to get as far away from home and get somewhere that was out of my comfort zone," said Houlton, a freshman swimmer for the University of Iowa. "I could see myself fitting in at Iowa. I knew the assistant coach, Kirk Hampleman, because I used to train with him in Albuquerque, New Mexico."
While Houlton was ready to step away from the comforts of her parents back home in Tucson, Ariz., she wasn't ready to pass on the sport of swimming, which has been somewhat of a refuge for her since the age of 5. Houlton competed for the first time in more than a year Oct. 26 as the Hawkeyes defeated Michigan State 178-122 in the Field House pool. She placed fourth in the 100 backstroke (59.51) and 10th in the 100 free (55.65).
"I was really nervous, but it was nice to get that first race under my belt," Houlton said. "Now I can go from there since I have the first-race jitters out. I was nervous, but it was nice to race again."
Houlton's youth swimming exploits are well documented. As a freshman in high school, she made the national junior team for U.S.A. Swimming and won a bronze medal in the 200 backstroke in Sydney, Australia. In 2004, Houlton was Rookie of the Meet at summer nationals in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and she made the Olympic Trials in the 400 IM, 200 IM and 200 backstroke at Long Beach, Calif. When she was 14, Houlton swam 4:12 in the 400 IM, breaking the national age-group record previously held by two-time Olympic gold medalist Natalie Coughlin. Although training for high school competition was not a top priority, Houlton still won eight state championships in three years and added a second and two third-place finishes.
College coaches began salivating over the thought of luring Houlton to their pool. She considered the University of Arizona, but it was too close. Southern Methodist in Texas was an option as well, but she signed a letter of intent to compete for the University of Florida. Houlton said that life challenges allowed her to receive a full release from Florida, which opened the door for her to become a Hawkeye.
"I talked to a lot of other schools, but I knew pretty much what I wanted in a college from the beginning," Houlton said.
"Molly is hungry to come out and help the University of Iowa. She is a gifted swimmer who has been able to compete at a very high level. We're looking at her long-term potential for the program."
Iowa Head Coach Marc Long
In the early-going at Iowa, Houlton has concentrated primarily on improving her sprinting skills. She said that getting times down in the 100 backstroke is a goal, but her feature events will be the 200 backstroke, 200 IM, 200 freestyle, 500 freestyle and 100 freestyle.
"Molly is hungry to come out and help the University of Iowa," Iowa Head Coach Marc Long said. "She is a gifted swimmer who has been able to compete at a very high level. We're looking at her long-term potential for the program."
Being so far from home has not been a major adjustment for Houlton, who has blended in well with the Hawkeye swimming family.
"There are tons of resources here and I love the support at Iowa," Houlton said. "There is this huge list of people who are there to back you up at all times. The support my coaches and teammates have given means a lot to me. There are a lot of good relationships on this team. We all get along well."
Being part of a team is a relatively new sensation for Houlton, who spent the majority of her career training and competing as an individual.
"When I got up for my first race (at Iowa), everyone was standing up," Houlton said. "It wasn't just me swimming for me, it was me swimming to score points for the team. That took off some of the pressure that I tend to carry on my shoulders. It's fun doing this for the team."
At the age of 5, Houlton began swimming competitively, as well as participating in gymnastics, soccer and basketball. As Houlton recalls, the first four years of her aquatic journey were a disaster.
"To be honest, I hated swimming," she said. "I would cry and cry and cry. My coach would have to push me off the blocks and I just held onto the lane ropes and cried. My parents kept me in it, I don't really know why because I was brutal. I threw fits."
By the age of 9, swimming soaked into Houlton's blood, but she was being pressured by her basketball and swimming coaches to choose between sports. Once Houlton specialized in swimming, the love affair began. She said she received her work ethic from her father and "loved to train."
"Training was my life and nobody could really stop me," Houlton said. "That's when my career started to take off."
Houlton, who has six siblings, is an elementary education major and volunteers her time at a local school in Iowa City.
"I love, love, love kids," Houlton said. "I want to be involved with anything that has to do with kids."
Last season Iowa finished 10th in the conference meet, but Long has the program heading in a positive direction. In three seasons under Long, the Hawkeyes have had four All-Americans and a whopping 29 academic all-Big Ten student-athletes.
"We have a very young group that wants to make a difference," Long said. "This team is developing right in front of our eyes."
The UI recently broke ground on a $69 million Campus Recreation and Wellness Center, which will include a 50-meter competitive swimming pool and separate diving well. Like most swimmers, Houlton has a soft spot in her heart for the outdated Field House and is eagerly anticipating the opening of the CRWC in late fall of 2009.
"I love the pool that we train in," Houlton said. "I love the feeling of being old. But I've trained in a lot of pools in my life and it will be nice to have a new facility and a fresh start."
Houlton has captured more than her share of ribbons, medals and trophies while growing up. Her goal at the UI is more intangible.
"One of my biggest goals is to be a team leader," she said. "I really care about this team and we're in the process of building something that is going to be really special."
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