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Bechtel's growth sets the standard entering SECs

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Christina Bechtel Christina Bechtel (UK Athletics)
The 2013-14 swimming and diving season has been a transitional campaign at Kentucky. First-year head coach Lars Jorgensen has instituted changes across the board from training to the all-around culture within the team.

No Wildcat has transitioned better with her coaching staff than butterfly standout Christina Bechtel.

"She has been phenomenal really," Jorgensen said. "Not just in meets, but every day in practice. At the end of the week she always seems better then she was the previous week. It's kind of a mark we like to have from all of our athletes, but she's kind of exceeded that expectation."

At the start of the campaign, Jorgensen took every member of the team aside to discuss the team's goals. With Bechtel, the benchmarks were lofty. The targets were set so difficult to attain, in fact, that when the junior started reaching them during the fall season - months before the NCAA Championships when she could be expected to round into form - both the swimmer and coach were pleasantly surprised to a significant extent.

In late November, during a three-day invitational meet at Ohio State - one of the nation's best programs - Bechtel broke the school records in both the 100 and 200-yard butterfly.

Breaking school records ranked high amongst the accomplishments Jorgensen had told Bechtel she was capable of attaining before the season started. But to do so in a manner so convincingly, - she broke the 200 fly record by more than four seconds - and so early was frankly astonishing to all parties involved.

"I intended on breaking the records, but I didn't intend on doing it so early," Bechtel said. "The new coaching staff has really pushed me this year, and it has paid off. The training has been really a lot more intense this year than last year and I think that's the major difference. There are really high expectations and standards. I like that about the program because if your coaches don't hold you to high standards, then what are you supposed to hold yourself to."

Indeed Bechtel enters this week's Southeastern Conference Championships as one of the favorites in both the 100 and 200-yard butterfly events, an impressive feat given the quality of competition in the conference. The SEC regularly has half or more of the top-10 ranked teams in the country.

Her growth since Jorgensen took the helm at UK has provided a standard of excellence for her teammates. The Wildcats will hope that standard reaches full sail at the conference championship.

"She's a great competitor, a really hard worker and a leader," Jorgensen said. "She's kind of the total package in terms of what we ask for from the members of our team."

Bechtel's performances early in the year afforded UK the luxury of tapering her training toward the championship portion of the season, as her times qualified her for the NCAA Championships with plenty of time to spare.

As a result, she didn't have to spend the season chasing qualifying standards; instead she's been working toward peaking when the championship meets come. That time is now.

"She's worked hard, but the biggest thing we have done is trying to prepare her for the NCAA Championships just to try to be really competitive there. By November, we already knew she was going (to NCAAs) so the other meets were important just as stepping stones.  It was nice to be able to focus on February and March from early in the season.

"We've been taking a really simple approach. It has been the old cliché of trying to win today, take it one day at a time, because if you don't do a good job in December, then the SEC Championships in February or the NCAA Championships in March become insignificant."

Much of Bechtel's success has been attributed to her new approach in training, one of the main points of emphasis Jorgensen instilled once he took over the program.

"The training has been really a lot more intense this year than last year and I think that's the major difference," Bechtel said. "When you're on the pool deck the atmosphere is more intense. You walk into practice and are expected to perform well.

"Every time you get in the water is like every time you swim a race, and that's the expectation every day. The goal is to practice as fast, or faster, than you would in a meet. That's what Lars always says; 'you're only as good as how well you train.' "

But Bechtel didn't just improve because of her attitude adjustment; she also changed how she races tactically.

At the forefront of those changes was a greater focus on kicking for longer distances, specifically under water - without taking a breath - upon entry off the blocks and during turns.

"The way my stroke has changed this year is basically I have done a lot more kicking, and a lot of faster kicking," Bechtel said. "This year Lars is always telling me to be a world-class kicker. In swimming there's been a big change as far as underwaters - where you kick most of the time underwater after the dive in and on turns - that has been a major change in the sport, especially in the butterfly and backstroke; most of your race is now under water, not really on the surface.

"We've been focusing on swimming underwater as fast as you can. We also do a lot of breath control because if you can't hold your breath then you can't kick under water. I'm faster under water than I am on the surface."

Bechtel's kick is a huge advantage for her, thus her coach hones in on that aspect of her race.

"She might be the best in the country under water," Jorgensen said. "I don't think there's anybody in the country better than her. She has helped other people on our team become better at it. I think it's something we really focus on as a program. It's important that everybody does that well. She combines that, which she has great talent for, with making other people better. That's also a reason why she's a captain."

Bechtel has taken on a leadership role this season, in large part as an extension of the head coach. The two seem to embrace a strong connection in training that serves as an example for the rest of the team.

Such a relationship is important as elite swimmers are asked by their coaches to push their bodies beyond most tangible limits of comfort.

"He's like a coach, but also one of my best friends," Bechtel said of her coach. "Whenever I'm having an issue or something I can talk to him and he will just make me laugh. I think that's a good thing because honestly, I probably spend four and a half hours a day with Lars. I think it's important to have a good relationship with your swim coach because if you are constantly annoyed by the person you have to see every day it just makes it terrible. Lars is always passionate, and he really makes you want to swim faster.

"That's really important; to have a coach that pushes you and makes you want to do better. Lars does that, he is never satisfied."

The fruit of Bechtel's labor, put in during countless training sessions over the past few months, will be on full display this week at the most competitive conference championship meet in America.

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