How ‘The Emmas’ Are Beginning to Leave Their Mark on Sun Devil Women's Swim
TEMPE, Ariz. – It's mid-February at the Mona Plummer Aquatic Center, and tucked inside one the facility's corner offices, associate head coach Rachel Stratton-Mills gushes about the Emmas.
Emma Gatzke and Emma Gehlert: The inseparable freshmen duo that has leaned on one another and pushed each other while collectively raising the bar of the entire Sun Devil Women's Swimming team in their rookie seasons.
"We're trying to build this program to get to a place and to have two freshmen who are so supportive of each other, of the team, who are very hard working, so everyday at practice you know they're going to have a great attitude and they're going to push the level of training is instrumental," Stratton-Mills said. "It's really having those freshmen, who have already taken on some leadership roles, and knowing that 'the Emmas' are going to keep pushing the program forward is really exciting."
It didn't necessarily begin this way, though, not like the pair arrived on campus back in August with the moxie it has now.
Instead, it took patience, friendship and an overarching sense of belonging to spark the confidence and leadership qualities the two possess now.
"It was hard for the first few weeks, maybe a month, but as I started to get closer to the team, all the older girls do a really good job of letting you know they care about you and that they're there for you and they're not just your teammate," Gatzke said. "The first month, I just had this sick feeling in my stomach. Now, it's a new home. I used to be like,
'I'm never going to drop this feeling, I'm always going to be missing home.' But, I actually really like it."
Gatzke joined the Sun Devils from New Berlin, Wisconsin. A Midwest kid eager to find some permanent sunshine, Gatzke was introduced to Tempe via her brother, who was an ASU student.
"I hadn't heard much about ASU until we came and visited him," she said. "And I just loved the campus. I knew I wanted to swim in college, so I reached out and talked to Derek [Schmitt] and Rachel.
"I just really loved the coaches here. I came out in October of my senior year, met a few of the swimmers, and it was just, like, so fun. They were so welcoming."
Gehlert came from Sandia Park, New Mexico. She, too, hadn't given the Sun Devils much thought until touring the campus with her sister, who was originally interested in ASU.
"I came here on a tour with her and I honestly fell in love with it right away," she said. "Because of COVID, recruiting got kind of complicated, but I started doing Zoom calls with some of the girls on the team. I just loved the team energy and how supportive and nice the coaches are, too. I just immediately fell in love with the team and the campus and really loved it."
How the Emmas came to be, and how their glued-at-the-hip friendship was born, was mere happenstance. In February 2021, when the two were wrapping up their high school careers on near opposite sides of the country, Stratton-Mills gathered the team's incoming freshmen on a Zoom call to discuss logistics for the coming months.
"Rachel was like, 'Who will be in Barrett [The Honors College]?'" Gehlert remembers. "And it was just the two of us, so she was like, 'OK, perfect, you guys are roommates.'"
They nodded. They briefly exchanged contact information, followed each other on social media – and that was that.
"And then we didn't talk until we got here," Gaztke said, laughing. "But, I honestly thought she was so cool. I was like, 'Oh, my God, she's not going to like me. She has a nose piercing! There's no way.'"
How quickly those initial nerves subsided. Despite the random pairing, the two were a perfect fit. Two incoming freshmen, both members of the prestigious Barrett, The Honors College, both Emma G.
"We're always just laughing," Gehlert said. "Sometimes, it even annoys our friends."
On October 16, the Sun Devil Women's Swim team traveled to Pullman, Washington, serving as both the season-opener and the collegiate debuts for Gatzke and Gehlert.
Gehlert finished third in the 200 breast, fourth in the 100 breast and fifth in the 400 IM. Gatzke added a pair of fifth-place finishes in the 200 back and 200 free relay.
"It was super exciting," Gehlert said. "I honestly didn't know what a college dual meet was going to be like … It was so fun having a close-knit team behind you, cheering you on. I remember cheering for others and being cheered for. It was just so much more fun than I was expecting."
Gatzke was equal-parts excited and nervous.
"I didn't know what my standing was on the team," she said. "The beginning of the year, we were always just working really hard and I remember at that meet, Rachel said, 'Everyone on this team has something to contribute,' and I feel like that really helped."
There was an instant high that followed, the realization that they were competing and contributing at the highest level of collegiate swimming. And they were doing it together, too.
"Everyone here is so much more of a family," Gatzke said. "They try to do things outside of swimming, too, so we're bonding. I just love that. It's like the new family I have here."
Gehlert, a Business major, is the only freshman on the Women's team who competed at every meet this season, including the mid-season invite and the postseason. A breaststroke specialist, Gehlert tallied seven podium finishes this season, including the first win of her collegiate career in the 200 breast against UCLA in November. She finished 16th in the 200 breast at the February Pac-12 Championships, too.
Gatzke, studying for a degree in Civil Engineering, served as a bit of a Swiss Army knife for the Sun Devils, competing in the 500 and 1000 freestyles, the 200 back and the 400 medley relay at various points of the season. She also competed in the 200 back and 500 free at the conference championships.
In the weeks leading up to the Pac-12 Championships, Stratton-Mills was pleased to notice a change of demeanor in the Emmas, once quiet and reserved but now coming into their own as confident cornerstones of the future of the team.
"There has been immense growth in the two of them. I think part of it is how much they support each other. They both are very goal-oriented and driven, and you see that from a lot of the Barrett athletes," she said. "Even this morning in practice, they were leading the charge, leading the lanes and really pushing each other. It's been really exciting to see how they came in and where they already are making an impact on the team."
The two have their eyes set on future leadership roles with the team, partly to share the wisdom and lessons learned to future classes on the team, but also to carry on a tradition set forth by the upperclassmen on this year's team.
Throughout the early going this season, Gatzke and Gehlert felt homesick, feelings all too common with first-semester, out-of-state freshmen. But it was the support shown by veteran presences like Erica Laning and Nora Deleske that calmed those early nerves.
"I remember one time we were all hanging out at one of the girl's houses, and it was at the beginning of the year when I was still going through it," Gatzke said, "and I had never talked to Erica before. She was so intimidating to me. She's so cool, she has these cool tattoos. She sat down next to me on the couch and was like, 'Emma, can I talk to you? I just wanted to ask you if you were OK.
"I remember I just started bawling. I didn't even say anything. She said, 'I just know sometimes it's really hard,' and she just gave me this pep talk that was so sweet … That's a memory that I definitely will hold dear."
These Sun Devils, both in and out of the pool, are a family, a collection of characters from across the world who are all in it together. It's a home away from home for many, made possible by the support and care shown by all associated with the program.
Now, it's the Emmas' turn to leave their indelible mark next.
"I think as I get older," Gatzke said, "I want to be a leader on this team … I obviously don't want to force anything, but I think I want to be a leader on the team."
Gehlert agreed: "I would love to be that person for everyone on the team."