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Gophers sophomore James Freeman is Botswana’s best swimmer ever

Canadian Cory Johnston moves closer to securing his first career Elite Series victory

Jul. 22—James Freeman still remembers the puzzled looks he got when he told people in his native Botswana that he would be attending the University of Minnesota. Why would someone from a balmy climate in southern Africa move more than 8,000 miles away to a frozen tundra?

“Everyone knows that it’s cold (in Minnesota) and it’s not cold at home,” Freeman said with a laugh. “Everyone was asking about the cold. That’s about it. I think that’s about the extent of people’s knowledge of Minnesota, to be honest.”

To be fair, that’s pretty much the only thing Freeman knew before he got connected with the Gophers a few years back. He was attending high school in South Africa at the time and knew he wanted to continue his swimming career in the U.S.

“I used a company in South Africa that specializes in helping people get into colleges in the U.S.,” Freeman said. “They gave out my information and we linked up and got to talking, and Minnesota seemed like a good fit for me. It gave me everything I wanted. It’s worked out really well.”

Ultimately, the reason Freeman, 20, ended up in Minnesota is the same reason he will be representing Botswana at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo: He’s world-class swimmer. Like maybe the best swimmer the southern African country has ever produced.

That’s not hyperbole because Freeman currently holds 12 national records in Botswana, including every individual freestyle, individual butterfly and individual medley record. He will make his Olympic debut in Tokyo early Saturday morning in the 400-meter freestyle, then swim again early Sunday morning in the 200-meter freestyle.

“It was an exciting moment when they got it through to me that I’d be on the team,” Freeman said. “It’s definitely something I’ve thought about my whole career. I’ve always had 2020 circled on my calendar. It’s always something I’ve wanted to achieve along the way in my career.”

His career started back when he was 7 years old. His mother was his first coach, and after he outgrew her tutelage, Freeman joined a club team at age 11. That’s when he realized he was actually pretty good.

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“It clicked when I started swimming internationally on the junior team for Botswana,” Freeman said. “That’s when I realized I wanted to take this seriously. That was probably when I was about 12 years old or 13 years old.”

“Then in high school, I went to South Africa and ended up at Tuks Swimming Club in Pretoria,” Freeman added. “I swam there throughout high school, and the logical next step for me was to look at a place in college swimming.”

That’s how he ended up with the Gophers. He wanted to continue his career, and the University of Minnesota offered a good balance of solid athletics and academics. He eventually came to Minnesota for a campus visit … after he had already committed.

“Just to see everything, I guess, before I got here,” Freeman said with a laugh. “It’s a common move to go from south African countries over to the U.S. and most people have never been to the place they are going before they make the move. It gave me a bit of confidence knowing a bunch of other people have done it and it turned out well for them.”

It’s turned out well for Freeman as well. He started to find his niche last season as a freshman with the Gophers and likely will be relied upon to make a bigger impact as a sophomore. No doubt his Olympic experience will help.

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Though he admitted he’s feeling some pressure heading into the Olympics — remember, he has quite the reputation is Botswana — Freeman takes solace in the fact that his expectations for himself are higher than anyone else’s expectations of him.

“That makes it easier to deal with it,” he said. “The pressure is what it is. You just have to get along with it. Plus, I’ve found I perform better when I’m under a little bit of pressure.”

No matter what happens over the next week or so, Freeman is trying to keep everything in perspective.

“It’s part of my career journey,” he said. “Though it is the biggest competition that I’ve been to, I don’t see it as the ultimate competition in my career. My aim is to see how I perform and hopefully get a best time. If I do that, I’ll be happy. I’m doing it for the experience and hopefully as a way to get better for the future.”

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About the author

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Shawn Utley

Shawn previously worked as a journalist for several local newspapers until he realized the potential of internet for news reporting. He joined the team as a contributor which provided him a platform to dedicate his experience and knowledge for a wider range of audience. He excels in curating business news for the website.

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