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Butterfly Babe

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Dakota Luther is set to shine in her first year swimming for the University of Georgia. 

By Gretchen M. Sanders, Photos by Andy Ringgold and Ella Wells

Swimming 200 meters of butterfly hurts. Just ask Dakota Luther. The recent Westlake High School graduate tackles the grueling event in nearly every meet she enters.

She swam it at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., in 2016. She did it again at the World Championship trials in Indianapolis a year later. Three weeks after that, having made the U.S. team, she powered through four lengths of swimming’s hardest stroke at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. She was one of only two American women who qualified for that race. Luther was 17 years old.

“Getting to Worlds has been the highlight of my swimming career. I surpassed my own expectations,” says Luther, who finished 15th in Budapest and is coached by Olympic breaststroker Brendan Hansen at Austin Aquatics and Sports Academy.

Luther was 4 when she started swimming. Today, her life centers on the sport. She gets up before dawn to practice and is back in the water when the sun sets. Her discipline pays off. Luther won six individual University Interscholastic League state-championship titles while swimming for Westlake High School. In her junior year, she broke a state record held by Olympic gold medalist and former world-record holder Dana Vollmer in the 100-meter butterfly, and was named Westlake’s Athlete of the Year.

Hard work also earned Luther respect on USA Swimming’s national team this year, an honor that has her training alongside Olympic champions Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel and Lilly King.

It helps to have a good role model. Luther’s mother, Whitney Hedgepeth, competed in the 1988 and 1996 Summer Olympics, winning one gold and two silver medals in swimming.

Though Luther dreams of making her first Olympic trip to Tokyo in 2020, she has more pressing goals. She will compete in the U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif., this July, a qualifying meet for the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“Even if I don’t make it, I have Georgia to look forward to,” she says.

In August, Luther becomes a University of Georgia Bulldog.

“I love competing, and I’m ready for the change that college swimming will bring,” she says.

As the world awaits the chance to see her fly, here’s how this elite athlete keeps moving like a dolphin.

THE A.M.:

“My alarm goes off at 4:55 a.m. I put on my swimsuit, drink cold-brew coffee, eat a banana and drive 15 minutes to the pool. Practice starts at 5:30 a.m.”

THE WORKOUT:

“I swim six days a week. On three of those days, we workout for an hour and a half in the morning and for two hours in the evening. We swim up to 10,000 yards a day. I also do three dryland workouts with weights during the week, and I help my mom walk our three dogs. On Sundays, I rest. It adds up to about 20 to 25 hours of training each week. I’m usually pretty tired.”

THE DIET:

“I make most of my own food. When I was 14, a blood test showed I was allergic to gluten, dairy, eggs, peanuts, corn and soy. I have avoided foods that contain these ingredients ever since, and it’s been very good for my training. I feel better and I’ve lost 10 pounds of water weight. Now I eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, sweet potatoes, turkey burgers and Kind bars. I like to drink a smoothie with protein powder and a banana when I get out of the pool. It’s hard to manage my hunger because I train so much.”

THE GEAR:

“I have 20 to 30 swimsuits at home. I wear Arena and Speedo suits for training, and I have a collection of expensive suits for competition. Racing suits fit very tightly, feel thin as paper and cover the thighs almost to the knee. It takes 10 minutes to put one on. Swimmers also need their own pull buoys, paddles, fins, caps and goggles, which I have. For Olympic trials in 2016, we got kickboards with our names on them, and I love mine. I’m very superstitious, so I wear the same gold shoes to every swim meet. I also have a lucky green sweatshirt and lucky towels, and I paint my nails a certain way for the really big meets.”

THE MOTIVATION:

“I love to swim. People think my mom pushes me, but she doesn’t. My mom has no idea what I do at practice. I’ve always wanted to be the best at something I do. My mom just supports me. I swim because I want to.”

THE MINDSET:

“Dream big. I tell myself, ‘This is your race. Own it.’ ”

THE P.M.:

“I used to sleepwalk, so I’m working on getting enough sleep. It takes me 30 minutes every night to pack my school bag, make a smoothie for after morning practice and pick out my clothes for the next day. I kiss my mom good night and get in bed by 10 p.m.”

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