Months before February’s SEC Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, Kentucky head coach Lars Jorgenson had a conversation with sophomore Lauren Poole. Without a superstar in the 400-yard individual medley — Poole’s best event — Jorgenson told Poole she thought she could win the event.
Fast forward to Feb. 19 in Athens, Ga., and Poole made her coach look like a fortune teller. After dropping more than three seconds in the preliminary heats to earn the top seed in the 400 IM final, the Crofton, Md., native dropped nearly three more seconds to touch the wall first in a time of four minutes, 3.90 seconds. That was a Kentucky school record and one of many swims that helped the Wildcats win their first-ever SEC title.
“I don’t think she believed me for a while,” Jorgenson said. “And then it started to sink in that, ‘Man, maybe I could be an SEC champion.’ It didn’t really surprise me that she won. I thought she had a really good shot.”
Winning the 400 IM was the highlight of the meet for Poole, who had a weekend that swimmers mostly dream of. In her first event, the 200 IM, she posted a 1:55.56 in the preliminary heats, which was a 1.45-second drop and made her the second-fastest performer in school history. She would later finish sixth in finals with a time of 1:56.25.
Poole dropped more than six seconds in the 400 IM, and her time in that event is currently No. 3 in the nation. Then on the final night of the meet, Poole dropped more than three seconds in the 200-yard breaststroke, placing in fifth with a time of 2:07.33, becoming the third-fastest performer in school history.
But none of that compared to winning the team title.
“The night after we won, everyone was just so excited and everyone was just talking all night,” Poole said. “The bus ride back [from Georgia to Lexington] was about 7-8 hours. On that bus ride we were watching clips again, going through the pictures. We got a nice welcome home from the girls on the team who didn’t go to the meet and all the alumni. I think that’s when it really hit me. … That’s when it really sunk in, that we had done something that nobody had ever done before.”
The meet was a complete 180 from Poole’s freshman year. After training during her South River High days at the prestigious North Baltimore Aquatic Club, she didn’t have a smooth transition to college swimming. But she was able to refocus after a conversation with Jorgensen midway through her freshman year, which allowed her to realize what it would take to reach her potential.
However, that didn’t come during her freshman year, as Poole came down with mono right before the SEC championships. She still competed in the meet, scoring points for Kentucky in the same three events she swam this year and putting up then-best times in both the 200 IM and 200 breaststroke.
“Getting through that meet with mono could possibly be the worst experience of her life,” Poole said.
This year, Jorgensen said Poole’s confidence has made the difference.
“She’s not scared,” he said. “I think she used to be a little timid before the blocks or practice. Now she’s a pretty happy kid, confident. She’s always worked hard but I think she has that little extra edge with confidence and you can see it in practice. It’s allowed her to really take off.”
That confidence led to better results throughout the season. Poole was faster as a sophomore than she was as a freshman, which resulted in better swims in the season’s biggest meets. After a strong first day at the SEC championships in the 200 IM, Poole had a great morning swim in the 400 IM, which brought a new set of challenges.
Poole likes to nap between the prelims and finals session but was too nervous to do so during this meet. She said making the A-Final in the 200 IM was “terrifying” — and the 400 IM even more so. She talked with senior Bailey Bonnett about the pressure, and took comfort in having fellow teammates Bonnett and Gillian Davey, who is her best friend on the team, with her in the final. Poole and Davey would go on to finish first and second in the 400 IM final.
“We were all pretty nervous, I can’t lie,” Poole said. “But we warmed up together and when we were walking to the ready room we were just giving each other hugs and kind of saying good things to each other. We all agreed it was so much easier to do with each other in the race. If I was the only Wildcat in the race I would’ve been so much more nervous.”
Starting March 18, Poole will look to repeat her stellar SEC performance at the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Greensboro, N.C. She’s currently seeded third in the 400 IM, 12th in the 200 IM and 15th in the 200 breaststroke. It’s hard for swimmers to have a great meet again so soon after dropping so much time, but Poole has some team motivation. Kentucky has never finished in the top 10 at NCAAs, and was projected to finish eighth before accounting for diving, according to SwimSwam.
“Our assistant coach Maclin [Simpson] did sit us down and said … ‘You can’t let a day slip by because plenty of people go to NCAAs and bomb it and none of us want to do that,'” Poole said. “I don’t know what it’ll be like for me and if I can match the times that I just went, but I have no intentions of blowing it off being like oh I made it so it doesn’t matter. And we still have team goals.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UGA Athletics