‘We’re a swim school now’: Swim & dive breaks personal, team records en route to NCAAs

Seth Martin

In a year with many achievements, Kentucky women’s swim and dive was able to top them all with their first ever SEC championship in a record setting performance.

On Feb. 20, the Wildcats clinched their first SEC swim and dive title in program history with a winning tally of 1,124 points. Only one other team, Florida, was able to break quadruple digits with a score of 1,071.

The win was a long time in the making for the program. When head coach Lars Jorgensen arrived on campus in 2013, he would take over one of the worst programs in the SEC at that time. Before his tenure began, Kentucky had only finished higher than fourth in the SEC once in their history.

Jorgensen described the championship as “incredible” as he reflected back to 2013 to where it is now.

“Most people said we were never gonna be able to win,” he said. Jorgenson credited their recent success to the athletes who were there to help start the building blocks of a program eight years ago.

This season, Jorgensen credited athletes who have consistently put in the work, like junior Riley Gaines and sophomore Lauren Pool, with the team’s success.

“[They] were sensational all year,” Jorgenson said, pointing out those two as a couple of players who have put in the work this year, not to the discredit of the team.

Another player having a standout season is Gillian Davey, a sophomore from Urbandale, Iowa.

“I’ve been swimming since I was six, and my parents both swam too,” Davey told the Kernel. The COVID-created pause in swimming activities was the longest break she took from swimming in years. Like other athletes, this made Davey more grateful for the chance to be a college athlete.

That newfound appreciation and perseverance paid off for Davey at the SEC meet. She put up a school record time of 2:05.59 in the 200 Breast, good enough for an “A” cut and silver at the SEC competitions.

“It was really exciting,” Davey said. “You’re really trying hard all season…I didn’t taper last season or last year for SEC so I was really excited to finally taper, and my 200 Breast had been a little rough in the beginning of the season so I kind of was doubting myself but then it felt really amazing to drop over two seconds and kind of reaffirm [myself].”

Tapering is where a swimmer goes the extra mile and swims “really hard” in practice, leading up to a big moment in competiton where the swimmer is rested and ready to shave off those extra couple seconds.

Top finishes by Davey and Gaines led the team to the top of the podium, but all swimmers contributed to the win.

“It was really a total team effort…at the college level it’s all about the team and we had 22 girls at the SEC meet and all 22 scored…To me it was a total team win and [I’m] really excited about that,” Jorgensen said.

For the swimmers, the title was especially rewarding considering the way the season was cut off last year. Davey said the team trained without even knowing if there would be an SEC championship to compete for.

“We worked really hard on our team camaraderie – being supportive of each other and keeping the energy of not just like dual meets and SECs but in practice,” Davey said. “We were probably the most vocal and practice this year ever, which was really exciting. And so, as a team, it was just like, wow, our, our hard work finally paid off and we made history.”

Their joyous celebration included a dip in the pool with athletic director Mitch Barnhart joined in on the fun, even jumping in the pool with the team to celebrate. Jorgensen credits Barnhart and the administration for Kentucky’s overall athletic success, especially in the women’s sports.

“Our athletic director (Mitch Barnhart) does a really great job in terms of support, support for all the teams…It’s pretty cool seeing all the women’s teams at Kentucky doing very well…It starts at the top from Dr. Capilouto that to Mitch Barnhart and the leadership the leadership in the university has been really phenomenal,” Jorgenson said.

Davey said winning the SEC title was surreal at first and did not sink in until reactions started pouring in.

“Other athletes have been congratulating us, which has never ever happened before, and I live in the dorms and when we came back there was a sign in the lobby that said ‘Congrats, UK swim and dive.’ And so like people are actually noticing, which has never happened before,” Davey said. She gave credit to the coaching staff, whose support made a big impact to the athletes during a challenging year.

“[They] have been super supportive of us, this whole season…They’ve been leading the charge, and I think they’ve done a great job motivating us and putting it into our heads that we really could win,” she said..

Davey said despite the overwhelming accomplishments of the SEC title, there is still work to be done.

“We had to go right back into hard training…It’s really tough but that’s exactly what we need to be doing to prepare…My goal is to podium at NCAAs,” she said. For that to happen, Davey would need to shave another two seconds off her time.

Just like at the SEC championships, Kentucky could put their name on the map at NCAAs – something this program hasn’t had the opportunity to do much in the past.

Kentucky will have a record 14 swimmers at the meet, breaking the previous record of 10 which was set last season.

“I just have to keep working hard and to not be satisfied with the when or how I’ve done,” Davey said. “I have to stay hungry to put myself and my team even more on the map…we could really do that at NCAAs this year.”

The Lady Cats now will look ahead to the NCAA Championships this Wednesday, March 17, hoping once again to reach some new heights for the growing program.

“It’s extremely difficult,” Jorgensen said of the quick turnaround from a program and season high to the bigger challenges they’ll meet in Greensboro, North Carolina.

The Cats will once again lean on their grit and determination to compete for a title, looking to Riley Gaines and Lauren Pool for leadership.

“They’re both seeded in the top eight…[so] they have a pretty good shot, and so those [two] will probably be our two best chances (at a championship),” Jorgensen said.

Kentucky has high hopes for their NCAA performance. Davey said the team hopes to finish in at least the top 10, something they’ve never done before.

“I think top 10 is a really reasonable goal, especially because we have quite a few swimmers who are ranked in the top eight, which scores the most points,” Davey said. But she’s also hopeful that the team can build on their success for next year, since their returning swimmers account for 760 of their points earned at SEC.

“If it were to happen again next year, it would be incredible, but it wouldn’t be quite as sweet as this year because it was the first time,” Davey said of the SEC title.

Jorgenson said the ability to repeat these wins would be a sign that the program itself is getting better.

“Once you repeat, then you know, we can really make our mark in terms of a program which I think we have,” Jorgenson said. “But to me a program is one that consistently performs every single year, maybe Alabama football, historically Kentucky basketball. You know, programs like that that are always good.”

Davey sees that happening already, joking that swim and dive had put Kentucky on the map.

“We’re a swim school now.”