THE TACTICIAN

By George Washington

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Courtesy: George Washington

Immediately following one of the most important swims of his life, Gustav Hokfelt knew he'd accomplished his goal.

"In that race," Hokfelt said, "all that mattered was giving Tommi (Wolst) as much wiggle room (with the lead) as I could."

Hokfelt's blistering opening leg of the 400-yard medley relay at the Atlantic 10 Championships on Feb. 16 sent GW on its way to a gold medal in conference and program record time. His split of 46.02 seconds snapped his own A-10 record for the 100-yard backstroke for the third time that day.

Hokfelt set a career best in the event during morning prelims (46.44 seconds) to grab the No. 1 seed in the evening final, where he won individual gold for the second straight season with another personal best (46.24). Then, the senior from Sweden went even faster in the relay, delivering the time he ultimately needed to qualify for his first NCAA Championships.

"I knew it (was the fastest yet)," said Hokfelt, who was named the A-10 meet's Most Outstanding Performer after helping the Colonials claim a second straight conference title. "Just because I felt much more relaxed in that race, and that's when I tend to do my best."

Hokfelt's stirring display was a testament to his ability to fine-tune on the fly and keep finding ways to make his best event even better. It's what he needed to do to ensure a career defined by remarkable progress every step of the way will end this week in Minnesota on the national stage.

"It's certainly been exciting for us," GW head coach James Winchester said. "We knew Gustav had some great potential, but he just keeps exceeding those expectations, too."

Growing up in Sweden, Hokfelt earned a reputation as a student of the sport who spent much of his free time pouring over YouTube videos of Olympic backstrokers like Aaron Piersall and Ryosuke Irie. He'd watch their races over and over again, mining the footage for tips that might help him in the pool.

That approach helped him develop beautiful form, if not the speed to match yet.

"My times were not very impressive back then," Hokfelt said with a laugh. "At all."

Hokfelt emailed hundreds of college coaches across the nation, looking for a chance to prove himself. Only a handful showed serious interest.

Looking back, Hokfelt is grateful to have found a match at GW, where his growth has mirrored the rise of the program.

As a freshman, Hokfelt qualified for the A final of the 100 back at the A-10 Championships, but his time of 49.24 seconds showed how far he had to go.

Winchester's arrival kicked Hokfelt's maturation into high gear. Eventually.

"My first semester with Gustav, he questioned everything, but that's just part of his personality," Winchester remembered. "I had to earn his trust."

Hokfelt has impressed Winchester with his analytical approach. At preseason goal meetings, he always brings his laptop cued up with his races, so they can talk about stroke paths, arm angles and other specific ways he might drop time.

The running joke around Smith Center Pool is that Hokfelt must love to train turns and the underwater portion of the race because he's always working on them.

"Actually, I don't like underwaters at all, but I know that's what makes me faster," Hokfelt said. "That's what you need to do in order to swim fast."

Working with Winchester has provided Hokfelt a much-appreciated push forward. The coach's process-driven approach with an eye on peaking in the postseason has meshed well with the swimmer's detail-oriented personality. Challenging himself daily to keep up with NCAA qualifier Andrea Bolognesi the past two seasons helped, too.

"It's hard to say it's been any one thing," Winchester said. "We always knew Gustav was really talented, and he just needed the right environment and the right support from the coaching staff to kind of light that spark."

Hokfelt dropped almost a full second off his career-best in the 100 back as a sophomore and picked up his first two A-10 medals as part of relays.

As a junior, Hokfelt took the next step with a tremendous conference meet. His two individual backstroke golds and three relay wins helped the Colonials breakthrough with their inaugural title.

Hokfelt won the team's Most Improved Award after both seasons. Still, he knew he had work to do if he wanted to finish his career at NCAAs.

That's why Hokfelt spent last summer tweaking his form with help from a stroke guru in Sweden. As he prepared for his international debut at World University Games, he was implementing the new technique, trusting that it could unlock even more speed.

"If you want to improve, you've got to find something new to do," said Hokfelt, who broke Sweden's national record in the 50-meter backstroke last spring. "Just doing the same thing over and over again all your four years you might improve minimally, but you won't see the big changes."

Hokfelt wasn't happy with his performance at the World University Games, but the intensive training for them had him in the best shape of his life and confident in his form when he arrived back in Foggy Bottom for his senior season.

Hokfelt was ready to put his best foot forward at last month's A-10 Championships in Ohio, where he claimed seven gold medals, including individual wins in the 100 and 200 back and 50 free with NCAA B-cut times.

"I always knew he had that in him," said GW assistant coach Birkir Jonsson, who has been on staff for the entirety of Hokfelt's career. "Just to see him put it all together was great."

Hokfelt's efforts in the 100 back on the third of four days at the SPIRE Institute earned him the NCAA invitation.

In prelims, he felt like he didn't hold out his underwaters on the turns quite long enough. He believed he overcorrected in the final, using too much energy below the surface holding out his pushes off the wall.

In the relay, Hokfelt found a happy medium, recording a time that ultimately ranked No. 21 nationally.

"That's definitely a great gift of his," Winchester said. "He takes his races one at a time. If he thinks he has something to improve upon, he just goes back to work and gets it done."

Hokfelt is quick to credit an extra boost from his raucous teammates, too. He was pumped to hand Wolst a lead of more than a second for the breaststroke leg before he looked up to the scoreboard and saw his time.

"I love the relays a lot," Hokfelt said. "They're so much better than the individual races because you get to do them with the team. It's so much more fun."

Now, Hokfelt has his sights on further improvement. He's analyzed his A-10 races and pinpointed areas in each event to focus on in the lead up to his debut on the national stage.

Hokfelt has earned this opportunity with his ability to turn those kind of tiny corrections into major progress.

"It's an honor to represent the program at this level," Hokfelt said. "To think back to that little kid that came in here freshman year, although he did have the dream of going to NCAAs and saw that as a goal, it was not attainable whatsoever. For me to actually be in that position now to go there, I don't think I could've planned that at all. It's quite amazing."

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