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Lars Jorgensen leads the UK swimming and diving team into the SEC Championships this week. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Lars Jorgensen leads the UK swimming and diving team into the SEC Championships this week. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)

The buildup to the Southeastern Conference Swimming and Diving Championships lasts the entire season.

Preseason training, dual meets and invitationals from September through January all lead to this moment. The excitement, speed and competitiveness at the SEC Championships rival even the NCAA Championships.

Kentucky enters the five-day championship coming off a win at Cincinnati on Jan. 30. Since then, it's been all about tapering, staying fresh and building on the momentum from the win over Cincinnati.

"The team is excited. The last few weeks of training has been really good," second-year head coach Lars Jorgensen said. "We've continued to build momentum in practice, along with getting rest and recovery so everyone is sharp when we get to Auburn. The key is to keep everyone sharp."

The buildup has been aided by the win at Cincinnati in UK's regular-season finale. Both the UK men and women notched identical 216-84 victories, which has propelled the Wildcats into a positive two weeks of practice leading into Tuesday's conference meet.

The championship preparation got a boost because of the win at UC. The excitement level from that win has translated into the two weeks of training.

"There's been a really positive attitude in practice," senior Christina Bechtel said. "Everyone's been excited, it's really good energy in the pool. We're gearing up, getting ready to swim fast at SECs. Getting that big win at Cincinnati will help us bring a lot of good momentum into the championship and bring some good performances."

"Our practices have been really good. We've had a lot of hard practices," sophomore Danielle Galyer added. "We're looking forward to SECs, everyone is tapering and we're excited to swim fast."

While attention and excitement for the SEC Championships has kicked into high gear after the conclusion of the regular season, the meet has really been the focus ever since September.

Ever since the beginning of the season, Jorgensen has preached the importance of building up towards the conference championship meet. Not only is it key to have your fastest times to earn more points for the team in the standings, but it's the personal-best times that gets individuals into the NCAA Championships.

"SECs is always in the back of our mind. That's what we're training for," sophomore Kyle Higgins said. "Everyone's excited, coming off a win over Cincinnati and some good swims vs. Louisville. We definitely want to get best times, but each of us doesn't want this to be our last meet. We all want to get fast times so we can earn a spot at the NCAA Championships."

Swimmers qualify for the national championship meet by their season-best times in each event, with the fastest athletes earning bids. From competing against a fast field to wearing special racing suits, those season-best times are routinely set at the league championship event.
Despite any success achieved during the regular season, it's at the SEC Championships were the season's story is written though.

"It's been a great year. We've achieved a lot of success so far. But this meet is important. It's where we can qualify some more athletes for NCAAs," Jorgensen said. "We want everyone to get as many personal-bests as possible and score as many points as a team as we can. It's a really difficult conference meet against some really good teams, some of the best teams in the country."

The season-long buildup has been aided by the fact that Jorgensen is in his second season. For the 35 athletes returning from last season, there are fewer unknowns. From preseason training to postseason tapering, the Wildcats know what to expect. There is plenty of familiarity with Jorgensen's coaching style.

The 16 sophomores, many of whom have played a vital role in the team's success in 2014-15, are now familiar with the grind of the collegiate season.

"This year I think it was easier to get started," Galyer said. "I don't know if that's just because I'm a sophomore now, but we knew what to expect coming in, so it was easier to get adjusted right away. We're just trying to keep moving in the right direction.

"Being a sophomore and going into my second SECs, it's helpful for mental preparation for the meet. We know what to expect, there are fewer unknowns. I'm able to focus on the swimming part instead of guessing about all the other things."

One of the unknowns for any first-time competitor at the SEC Championships is just how big the event really is. From a packed venue to many of the nation's best swimmers and divers and the best teams, the five-day meet packs plenty of excitement.

Add in the fact that the meet will be broadcast live on SEC Network +, and there are plenty of nerves to go around.

"It's definitely going to be different this year, knowing what to expect and not being so nervous," Higgins said. "I know what I'm going up against, I know what to expect. It's going to be really exciting to race against some of the best in the country."

Knowing what to expect can make a lot of difference. Just ask Bechtel, who broke out on the scene last year at her second SEC Championships.

Then a junior, Bechtel placed second in the 100 butterfly after finishing 17th as a sophomore in her first SEC appearance. It was UK's first swimming medal at the conference championship since 2012 and the Bechtel became the first Wildcat to earn a silver medal since 2010.

The podium finish for Bechtel catapulted her to the NCAA Championships, where she placed fifth in the 200 butterfly.

"This is my third SEC Championships, so I know what to expect at this meet," Bechtel said. "Last year I had some good swims, so I'm hoping for some even better swims this season and to score as many points as a can for our team. I know what to expect, and I know the upperclassmen do as well, so we can help the freshmen too. The coaching staff has done a great job this season preparing this team, and I can't wait to see the results that will come this week."

This year, Bechtel owns the NCAA's fastest 200 butterfly time and the second-fastest time in the 100 butterfly. That has earned her the top seed in both events this week.

With a bid to the NCAA Championships already secured, Bechtel hopes a strong showing at the SEC Championships is just a sign of things to come at nationals.

Whether they're chasing an SEC title or a spot in each evening's top final, looking to improve their NCAA qualifying time or just making their first SEC Championships appearance, it's important to step back and enjoy the moment.

"The SEC Championships is fun. It's a really exciting event to be a part of," Jorgensen said. "The whole team travels and is able to compete. The week is really a lot of fun and the team is excited. They work so hard for this moment, so I hope they will be able to compete hard and enjoy it. And have fun with it, that's important too."

With a sold-out crowd expected at Auburn's Martin Aquatic Center and some of the nation's fastest swimmers on hand, there will be plenty of reasons to have fun.

Saturday, the Kentucky swimming and diving team will honor its 12 seniors before the Wildcats take on in-state rival Louisville.

The Kentucky-Louisville rivalry already packs plenty of emotion and significance. No matter the sport, it's the one opponent on every UK team's schedule that you don't need help getting excited for.  Add in Senior Day, and it makes for an even bigger meet Saturday at the Lancaster Aquatics Center. Not to mention the postseason begins in less than a month.

Saturday is the last home meet for the 12 seniors. For Christina Bechtel, Christa Cabot, Michael Christian, Brent Dillon, Katrina Keirns, Lindsay Keahey, Blair Kuethe, Abby Myers, Robert Resch, Samantha Shaheen, Derrick Smith and Kristen Wilson, UK vs. U of L is one last time competing in the Lancaster Aquatics Center.

Hours upon hours in the pool for practice. Lap after lap, with a coaching change halfway through their four years.

Lars Jorgensen arrived in Lexington as an assistant coach for the 2012-13 season, and took over as the head coach the following season. As Jorgensen prepares to take the Wildcats into the postseason for the second time and continues to build the program, the impact of this year's senior class cannot be overstated.

"They've been awesome; it's really been tremendous," Jorgensen said of the 12 seniors. "I've been fortunate to have worked with them for three years now, one year as an assistant. Watching them grow as people and as athletes has been a lot of fun. I've loved coaching them. They're great."

It's a group of All-Americans and walk-ons, from as close as Lexington to as far away as Texas and Ontario, Canada. Their shared goal and aspiration to help bring their team to new heights has made this group of 12 student-athletes a tight-knit group.

They bought into his vision and direction for the program when Jorgensen took over two years ago. As his second season nears its peak, Jorgensen's championship mentality and goals have rubbed off on his team.

From record times in the pool to their leadership outside of it, the seniors are a big reason why Jorgensen has taken the Wildcats so far in just two seasons.

It's the perfect mix of leadership and immense athletic talent for a team that has more freshmen (27) than juniors and seniors combined (21).

"They are good people, good citizens and good athletes," Jorgensen said. "We are going to have some big shoes next year to fill. But I think they have been instrumental in helping shape and help turning around the program. We still have a long way to go, but I think that's one of the things that this class in particular, both the men and women's teams, have done is started the transition on becoming more competitive."

Saturday will be an opportunity to honor the 12 Wildcats that signal the start of that transition that began last year.

While several swimmers have already earned NCAA "A" or "B" qualifying times, the next month, with a meet at Cincinnati next weekend before the SEC Championships in the middle of February, is when the competition really heat up. The Wildcats will have an opportunity to add to their total that have qualified for the NCAA Championships, therefore giving them a better chance at improving on last year's 23rd-place finish by the women and 37th-place showing by the men.

It's the teams' performance at the SEC Championships, held Feb. 17-21 in Auburn, Ala., and the NCAA Championships the following month, that will solidify the legacy of this year's senior class.

As Jorgensen continues to build the UK program on a daily basis, the team, led by its seniors, has embraced the change that their head coach has encouraged.

"I think change has got to start somewhere and they have been really good about that," Jorgensen said. "The big thing is creating a culture of expectations both in practice and meets and they've done that. They have been really instrumental in turning our program around. I hope we do hang some banners in the future, and would look back and say this year's seniors had a big impact."

The legacy of the 2014-15 senior class 10 years from now might be unknown, but all signs point to one that leaves a lasting impact on their team and university.

Abby Myers making an impact in and out of the pool

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From her success in the pool to the classroom and her commitment to the community, senior swimmer Abby Myers' impact on the Kentucky swimming and diving team and the University of Kentucky is hard not to notice.

A team captain who has excelled both in the pool and in the classroom, Myers' leadership is a key reason for the Wildcats' success in 2014. Combined with her commitment to community service, and she is the perfect representation of what it means to be a student-athlete at Kentucky.

Myers, along with softball player Griffin Joiner, has been named one of UK's two nominees for the NCAA's Walter Byers Postgraduate Scholarship. 

Established by the NCAA in 1988, the program honors one male and one female student-athlete annually by awarding a postgraduate scholarship in recognition of outstanding academic achievement and potential for success in postgraduate study.

"It means a lot to me. It is an honor to be chosen by the coaching staff and athletic department," Myers said of her nomination. "It means a lot that they would think so highly of me and choose me to be a candidate for this award."

The recipient of the Walter Byers Scholarship, announced in the spring, will be recognized as one who has combined the best elements of mind and body to achieve national distinction for his or her achievements, and promises to be a future leader in his or her chosen field of career service.

For UK head coach Lars Jorgensen, Myers fits the bill perfectly.

"Abby represents everything that's great about UK and our team," Jorgensen said. "There couldn't be a more deserving person, who's a great student, a great athlete and a great leader. She does wonderful things in the community and we're proud that she is nominated for this honor.

"Our women's team has made great strides the last two years, and much of that is because of Abby. Her work ethic in the pool, she holds her teammates accountable, she's tough as nails and she is well respected by her peers. She is a great person too. There's no shortage of good things to say about her. As far as her leadership, she is an outstanding leader and Abby has been huge in terms of our overall progress as a team."

As one of UK's captains this season, Myers has taken on an expanded role as a leader. With a large core of freshman and sophomores, those leadership responsibilities increase.

From workouts and competition to life outside the pool, Myers does not take the role lightly.

"I'm just trying to set the team into the right direction and set a good example," Myers said. "I want to give everyone an opportunity to be the best that they can be. I think the team has really taken that and run with it this year. I have seen the team grow a lot over the past two years and this is the best team I have been a part of."

In the classroom, Myers has been recognized several times for her academic success. Last spring, she was named to the Academic All-District Team, and helped the women's team earn the nation's best grade-point-average among all Division I men's and women's swimming and diving teams.

With a 3.94 GPA last year and majoring in Exercise Science, Myers has been named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll on three occasions.

Outside of team activities, Myers still can't get far away from the pool. Twice a week, she volunteers with a Special Olympics swim team in Lexington.

Myers was UK's representative on the 2014 SEC Community Service Team.

"My favorite part about community service is that I am part of a Special Olympics swim team downtown called the Fintastics," Myers said. "I have been doing that since my freshman year and they are kind of like my Lexington family. I see them twice a week, coach them and even swim with the kids a little bit. They are so much fun to be with. It's a nice thing to do to get off of campus to see some of the local Lexington people and get to know some people outside of UK."

From Cranberry Township, Pa., Myers is far from home, but her team -- both at UK and with the Fintastics -- have become part of a second family.

As Myers competes in her final season with the Wildcats, the All-American will continue to take UK to new heights. For Myers, this is just the beginning.

As the Kentucky swimming and diving team begins the 2014-15 season Oct. 10 at home vs. South Carolina, the formula for the Wildcats and second-year head coach Lars Jorgensen is simple: keep getting better.

When Jorgensen assumed head-coaching duties a year ago and began building the program, it did not take long for the student-athletes to buy into the coaching staff's approach. As the season progressed, the improvement and energy was hard to miss.

It was clear the team was improving, and that continues as Jorgensen builds the program in his second season at the helm.

"Keep getting better, each and every year, that's our goal," Jorgensen said. "For each individual athlete to get better and for our team to get better, that's what we're looking for. We want to compete at the SEC and NCAA Championships at a higher level."

The Wildcats ended the 2013-14 season on a strong note, as eight athletes earned All-America honors and the women's team finished 28th at the NCAA Championships, both totals the best since 2008. Swimmer Christina Bechtel in the 200 butterfly and diver Christa Cabot on 3-meter each reached the podium and earned top-eight finishes to highlight UK's postseason.

Coming off a strong showing at the USA Swimming 2014 National Championships, where Bechtel and Danielle Galyer earned a spot on the U.S. National and Junior National teams, respectively, Jorgensen is excited for what's to come in year two.

"We had a great first year and I'm really happy with how we swam this summer at US Nationals," Jorgensen said. "Now we just need to continue to move forward and improve this year. I think there's a lot to look forward to. It's a work in progress, but every week in practice we've gotten better and that's all we want.  We want to get better every week in practice leading up to the SECs and the NCAAs in the spring.

A trademark of last year's team was its energy and unquestionable work ethic, which played directly into the Wildcats' continued growth.

Six of the 10 Wildcats that made the NCAA Championships last season return in 2014-15, including four All-Americans. Anchored by a strong leadership core, the work ethic and passion from last year has carried over into this season, and the newcomers, 29 in all, that will play a vital part in the team's success this year have caught on quickly. 

"We're fortunate to have a lot of upperclassmen leaders that have really helped with the direction of our program, in and out of the pool," Jorgensen said. "Our men's team is very young and our women's team has a very nice balance of veteran leadership and newcomers.

"I'm very excited about seeing some of the freshmen develop on both men's and women's teams, there's some talent there. They've been working hard as we get them up to speed with our upperclassmen, it's been fun.  The veterans, you have a pretty good idea of what they need to do, we feel really good about that and making sure the freshmen gel with the team."

The 2014-15 Wildcats -- both upperclassmen and newcomers -- will have a slight advantage over last year. Not only will everyone be more familiar with the coaching staff, but the team will compete at home twice as much as last season.

The Wildcats will host four meets on five days in 2014-15 at the Lancaster Aquatics Center, three against SEC foes. Along with Friday's home opener, UK hosts Florida, the men's SEC champion in 2014, on Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. and a senior day matchup with in-state rival Louisville on Jan. 24.

Not only will the team be able to compete in a familiar environment in front of the home crowd, but the time spent traveling will be cut back, allowing the athletes to get more rest, miss less class and stay fresh.

"Last year it seemed we were on the road all the time, so we're just excited to be home," Jorgensen said. "It's so much easier with academics and travel to be at home. We're starting off the season with two SEC teams, it doesn't get any more exciting than that."

Kentucky made great strides in Jorgensen's first season, but Jorgensen and the Wildcats are still hungry for more. 

When fans cheer on the Wildcats in 2014-15, they'll see a UK team that's continuing to grow and get better, with plenty of energy and eager to break more new ground.

Haley Mills with a new friend in Ethiopia. (UK Athletics) Haley Mills with a new friend in Ethiopia. (UK Athletics)
In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.

Today, Haley Mills writes about some inspiring children the student-athletes met on their last full day in Ethiopia.

We started our day like every other morning on our trip which included an early awaking followed by a delicious breakfast. We loaded up in our Toyota Coaster and dodged through the crazy traffic of Addis Ababa.

We first arrived at a little shop to buy a few souvenirs for loved ones back home. We then ventured on to a boys' home called Hope. The owner used to live on the streets of Addis and he was in and out of jail 32 times. After he turned his life around, he started a home for street boys to try and make a difference and change their lives. We introduced ourselves to all the boys and we were overwhelmed the most with their kindness and love, amidst the adversity.

A few of the boys shared their story and I was inspired as I related it back to my life. They had lost their parents and were left with nothing. They were destined to live sad lives as street children, yet these boys did not give up. They were doing everything they could, going to school, making enough money to live, learning English, all the while wrapped in God's will.

One boy told me his dream was to attend the University of Virginia and study psychology. He then went on to explain that he realized it was an impossible goal to reach. This broke my heart because here I am living his dream at UK. We take so much for granted and the events from today will make me think twice when complaining about something in my life. After we played soccer and football with the kids, we had pizza brought to the home for all of us to share. I was shocked when I saw almost half of the boys raise their hands when asked if this was their first time to ever eat pizza. These children have nothing and the joy in their eyes from a simple slice of pizza is truly inspiring.

Later that day we went to dinner at a place called Cupcake Delight. At first everyone thought we were having cupcakes for dinner and there was confusion on all of their faces. I did not think twice about it but the others were thinking about their "performance athlete diet". The restaurant ended up having a full menu and we all enjoyed a fantastic meal together. This was our last full day in Ethiopia and all of us were getting a little sad. We did not want to leave, especially to get on a 17-hour flight. Altogether it was a great day in Addis Ababa and it is one that I will never forget. Today's events left a huge impact on each and every one of us. The boys from Hope were such an inspiration and made me rethink the way I live.

In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.

Today, Katrina Keirns and Kirsten Lewis write about a day spent in Debre Zeyit.

Katrina Keirns

Today we took a trip outside of Addis Ababa to go visit Mark's dear friend Sammy, who strives to take care of those in prison, widows and the poor. We began our day by eating our favorite breakfast, French toast and eggs, and then began our hour and a half journey to the city of Debre Zeyit.

After arriving in Debre Zeyit, we immediately drove to pick up the supplies we needed for the day, and then immediately headed to Sammy's house. When we pulled up in his drive way, he came out to greet us and welcomed us into his beautiful home. He told us that our tasks for the day would require us to divide into two different groups. Half of our team would go to deliver food supplies to prisoners, while the other half would help to build houses in another part of town.  Before both groups parted our separate ways, we formed an assembly line to make multiple bags of food and laundry to give to the prisoners we would be visiting. These bags consisted of a loaf of French bread, a couple bananas, detergent and body soap. After packing up the bags, we each grabbed a handful of them and loaded up the bus.

The first two prisons we visited were only a few minutes from Sammy's house. When we parked outside of it, I was confused as to where we were because it's so different from the prisons we have in the U.S. The prison was mainly outdoors and only had a few cells that held people. We then were able to chat and deliver the food bags and other donations to the prisoners, which we were very happy to do. The prisoners were very happy and appreciative of the supplies because the only items they receive from the jail are a few pieces of bread and water daily.

After delivering food to the two different prisons, we then began to make our journey around to visit all of the widows in need of food supplies. If widows do not have sons, they unfortunately struggle with getting food and other supplies because they do not have anyone to care for them as they get older. We had the pleasure of delivering food to six different widows' homes, who were all more than appreciative. When we arrived at each individual home, they all welcomed us with open arms and tears in there eyes. They then would hug and kiss each of us three times and tell us how much of a blessing we were just for coming to visit them. These women are honestly the nicest women I have ever met and constantly amazed me with their grace and how the smallest things make them the happiest.

UK Athletics UK Athletics
Following the widow visits, we began our journey back to Sammy's house. Sammy and his family invited us to stay for lunch so that he could make us a traditional Indian meal. After he was done preparing the meal, we gathered around outside in a circle and prayed over the delicious meal we were about to eat. The lamb curry, rice and naan (bread) that Sammy prepared was one of the best meals I've ever had, and I'm so thankful that he took time out of his day to host us. After we finished eating, Sammy told us that we would be visiting a few other families that were trying to start their own businesses in order to have a steady income.

The first family we visited consisted of a beautiful family of five (mother, father and three sons), that wanted to begin somewhat of a baking business so that they could sell their goods at the market. When we delivered the supplies to this family, the father told us how grateful he was that we were supporting him in his new business and was so thankful that we made the trip to see him and his wonderful family. The second family we visited needed a generator to power the arc welder. When we delivered the generator to the father, he was so grateful and happy that we brought the supplies he needed to help him begin the process of making the arc welder possible. The genuine smile and joy that portrayed made me so happy that our group could help him start something great.

Overall, this day was very impactful. All of these people have such big hearts and are thankful for every little bit that comes their way. Although they were the ones thanking us, I wanted to thank them in return for giving us the opportunity to visit them and hear their amazing stories. I will never forget their genuine, kind hearts and love that they showed us when they welcomed us into their homes.

Kirsten Lewis

We started off the day with a breakfast at 7:30 consisting of French toast and eggs! After our stomachs were full for the day ahead, we were ready to leave our guesthouse to go visit the city of Debre Zeyit, which was about an hour and a half drive out to the countryside. Only a few people in the bus got some shut-eye and the majority of us were either engaged in conversation or had our heads glued to the windows taking in all of the beautiful sights. The trip seemed to fly by so fast, and we were in Debre Zeyit in no time!

We immediately met up with Sammy, the man we were going to be assisting the whole day with his job and ministry in Debre Zeyit. After meeting up with him, his crew and his two adorable little girls, we sorted the supplies that he had already provided into several plastic bags that we would be distributing to the widows and the prisoners for the rest of the day. They guys opted to help out with a local building project, while the girls opted to go visit the two prisons and deliver some food to couples and widows in the area.

At the first prison that we visited, we were only able to drop off the food and supplies and nothing else. Mark said that it usually depends on who is in charge of working the prison that day as to how much interaction we could have with the inmates when different groups come in to visit them. Originally, we had expected to have the opportunity to talk to some of the prisoners, hear their stories and offer encouragement to them. A minor deviation from our previous plan, but we were happy that we were at least allowed to give them the food and items that we brought to make their stay at the prison a bit more comfortable. At the second prison, there were not as many prisoners being held so we distributed the food quickly and gave what we had left over to the guards and staff.

The next task on the agenda was delivering food to the families and widows in the area! We spent the rest of the time until lunch stopping at each house that needed food. We got to ride around most of the city of Debre Zeyit while we were making these deliveries, and I was at awe at the difference from the cities here in America! In the streets in Debre Zeyit, there are cars, mingled with people riding in carts hooked up to horses and dogs freely roaming the streets.

This city was a bit more rural than Addis Ababa and you could see valleys, mountain tops, trees, cattle roaming and gardens full of flowers as we drove around. It was absolutely beautiful and a nice change of pace from the street and in Addis Ababa. After we finished delivering all of the bags, we headed back to Sammy's house, where we met up with the boys and ate a delicious lunch that Sammy had prepared consisting of lamb curry, rice and naan. We sat around in a big circle as we ate and shared so many laughs with one another. It was a great physical and mental break from a very work-heavy morning!

The next order of business was delivering some heavy-duty machinery to a man who is in the process of starting his own business. We delivered to his home a generator and an arc welder which will help his new business out tremendously.

While we were there, we met a group of about 10 little boys who all were learning how to practice taekwondo. They were demonstrating to us their moves by having play fights with one another. At one point, Jared jumped in and started making up his own moves while the little boys began to watch him closely and begin to imitate the different poses that Jared was making. These little guys soaked up all of the attention that they were getting from us as we watched them go through all of their moves that they were currently learning. Their smiles and attitudes were infectious! They did not speak very much English, so at first it was difficult to learn very much about these boys besides their names and age. After one of our translators came over and joined us, we were able to learn about where each of the boys were from, how they had gotten into practicing taekwondo, what year they were in school and their favorite subjects.

After saying our goodbyes and taking a few pictures with these little guys, we all piled back into the bus and delivered some food to two more houses. John and I went together to deliver food to a young woman who had a little baby. We were able to take some pictures with her and her sweet little baby, who we found out was just two months old.

As we left the village, we stopped at the community center that the boys had started to build earlier. At this point, a bunch of little kids had begun to follow our bus around, and once we got out at the church, we were swarmed by kids of all ages and sizes. Some were shy and kept their distance while others came right up for high fives and were just speaking their language to us as if we could all understand them. The thing that struck me the most about these little kids were their willingness to accept us into their village as we were and just laugh and play and exist as if we were all the exact same for a day. This experience was humbling because how often do we accept and meet others right exactly where they are and come together for the sake of building relationships with another.

As we drove away from the village, one of the neatest moments was turning around and looking out of the back window of the bus and watching all of the little kids run after the bus for as long as they could. I do not think that I will ever be able to erase that amazing moment out of my mind. We left that day with our hearts overflowing with the love that everyone had showed us and every possible emotion running through our heads. Now, time to fill our empty stomachs with some food and get some sleep and do it all over again tomorrow!

In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.

Today, Montana Whittle, Danielle Fitzgerald and Charlie Reymann each write about an unforgettable day spent in the poorest area of Addis Ababa.

Montana Whittle

Where to start?

I find myself at a loss of words, because this experience cannot be described. There are no words or pictures that do this place justice. I wish I could let you see my memories and feel what I have felt. I will do my best to help you understand this place and its people, but I would highly encourage you to explore this world yourself and challenge you to keep an open mind.  

Today started with an amazing plate of French toast and a cup of coffee, and finished with me questioning my entire existence.  After breakfast we were given a brief explanation of what the day would bring. At this time I thought I was going to change lives, but the truth is that my life would be changed, forever. We were told that we were going to visit the poorest part of Addis Ababa. It is about one square mile, maybe a little bigger, and is home to over 100,000 people. These people are the poorest of the poor, most of them have been shunned due to disabilities and illnesses, such as leprosy or HIV/AIDS.  

We pull up in our van to Mark's office and children swarm us. From the minute we walked outside to the time we left, those children held our hands. They were so excited to meet us and tell us about themselves. All they wanted was for us to remember them, pray for them, love them. These children had such a huge impact on me. They were the happiest kids I had ever met, and yet they had nothing. Most of them had shoes that were falling apart and clothes that were worn thin. The two boys who held my hand had asked me for things, such as clothes, shoes or food. It broke my heart that we were not allowed to give them anything, because it would be unfair to those who did not get something. All I wanted to do was give these kids everything they needed; I wanted to tell them that everything was going be OK. But, the truth is, I had no idea. The memory of these children chasing after our van when we left will stay with me forever.

Our mission today was to deliver food and supplies (coffee beans, macaroni, salt, matches and soap) to widows and families in need. At the office we met the women and children who were going to be receiving these supplies. These women were inspirational. Faithful. They were so grateful, even though some of them could not even walk. Two women in particular really impacted me because one was in a wheelchair and the other had a daughter who could not walk, so she carried her on her back. When we delivered their food to their homes, the walk was not short. These mothers did not complain. In fact they were overjoyed just to meet us and have us see their homes.

I have never seen such poor living conditions, where their walls were sod, their roofs were tin and their floors were mud. A large house would be the size of our bathrooms in America. Yet, we were invited in without a moment's hesitation. They were so proud and had no shame; they wanted us to see everything in their homes and even offered us coffee. The first thing they did was thank us and tell us that they would be praying for us every day. I could not help but get emotional; I was not the one who needed prayers. I have never seen God work through people so much. They had so much going against them -- missing limbs, leprosy, unable to walk, crooked feet -- and yet they still were so patient with us, still so loving, still so faithful, still so happy.  

My experience today and every day this week was unreal and unforgettable. Now that I am home, all I can think about are those beautiful people that I met and my plan to return in the future. This experience has caused me to question everything that I know and everything that I want. Everything that was so important to me in the past is not important anymore. I know this experience has changed me for the better and I hope I never forget the faces and hearts of the people of Ethiopia.

Danielle Fitzgerald

Today was spent in one of the world's poorest places, which is built around the city dump. We started the morning with our standard "UK breakfast special" consisting of French toast and eggs but nothing we saw after was familiar. We were aware of the immense state of poverty but familiarity stopped there.

As we rolled up to the office that works to provide sponsorships to the people of the area, we were instantly greeted by big grins and precious little hands that wanted to be held. The instant joy the kids felt from simply having somebody touch them was quite overwhelming.

Mark took us into the office where we formed an assembly line to package macaroni, salt, body soap and other items for people who had been put on the sponsorship wait list. The recipients were sitting outside of the office and even though most were suffering from starvation, HIV/AIDS or leprosy, the pure joy they expressed seemed to be most contagious. We each carried a bag full of necessities to different houses, kids still in tow throughout the day. Although their houses' sizes were more comparable to a standard American bathroom than an American house, everyone was so proud to show us their homes and invite us to stay.

Each member of our team had about three kids latched onto them throughout the day and close to 100 followed us both when we were walking from house to house and running closely behind when our van took us to other parts of the town. There are few words to describe the emotions felt when a swarm of kids chases your van for miles and the two or three kids you've grown very close to come find you again, happy as can be to have done so. The simplest things brought them the most joy: thumb wars, hand games and skipping through the streets. Not even a language barrier could hinder that. Many of the kids would push their way through the line of hands to get closer to us but they did not realize they were the real celebrities, their endless love and eagerness to get to know us more admirable than our presence.

One of the hardest parts of the day was leaving the kids we had established relationships with. Eyes teared up when our new friends asked for pens to write their names on our arms in hopes that we would remember them forever and keep them in our prayers. Nothing can prepare you for the moment that two little girls ask you to take them home with you because life would be better that way.

It is so easy for us to get caught up in how busy our own lives are and forget about what is really important. These people don't have money to spend, cars to drive or cell phones to obsess over. They do have each other. And without worldly relationships, they still have a strong faith in God. I have never been so overwhelmed by such a concentrated sentiment of love. Relationships were valued so much more when there was not an emphasis on material possessions. Every person we came in contact with was significantly happier with their lives than I have ever seen before and I believe there is something to be said for that. Material poverty and spiritual wealth may not look glamorous from the outside looking in, but a completely different story was told once we were able to see from these beautiful people's perspective, even if only for a small fraction of time.

Charlie Reymann

Today was our second day in Ethiopia and it was full of eye-opening experiences. We started off with breakfast and then traveled to an area considered one of the poorest places in Ethiopia. The city began when all the people with leprosy were sent away and as time went on more and more outcasts were sent here. It surrounds a trash dump, and sometimes the people will search in the dump for food or supplies for their houses. We knew going into this day that this will be something we will never forget.

It is such a blessing to be able to experience a place like this. As we arrived, the first observations we had were the amount of people on the streets and what they called their homes. In the U.S. a home like we saw would make people look the other way. The houses were made from mud, wood and tin roof. And they were just thankful to have a home, something I think we all take for granted.

Once we arrived, we teamed up with a community center to provide some of the people in the community with a month's worth of supplies. The community center we worked with sponsors women and men from the city. The people that we helped today were men and women in line for the next sponsor. Some of the supplies we gave to them were macaroni, coffee beans, sugar and soap. We split up into little teams to make the process go as smoothly as possible. Since we are all athletes we all know how to work in a team, so we got to work.

Once we were done we all got the privilege to hand these men and women their supplies, which was a wonderful sight. Seeing their faces as we gave them the supplies was remarkable. They all said "God bless you" in English when we gave them their bag. After we gave them their supplies, some of us followed them to their houses to help carry them. These women came a long way to get their supplies, if I had to guess the farthest was two miles. And the lady who traveled the two miles was in a wheel chair!

As we walked with these women, questions came into my head. How does a place get like this? How does any human live in this city? Is there any solution to this problem? We may never know the answers to those questions but seeing the children filled us all with joy. Children came from everywhere to walk with us like we were rock stars. Each of us had at least three children holding our hands. Their smiles and joy were contagious to all of us. A place where it is hard to find anything to be happy about, these children could not stop smiling.

As I walked with these kids, I realized they were just happy to be alive. Video games and computers did not matter to them unlike kids in America. Materialistic goods are what most Americans really care about: their phones, their cars and their jewelry. These people have nothing and they all act like they have everything they need and more. It made us realize that we do not need all the "things" we own to be happy. They just enjoyed being with their friends and walking around with Americans for the day. And making new friends! We were their idols. They were thankful for a new friend, and that someone will be thinking about them. We get so caught up in our little world that we are not thankful for small things in life because we take them for granted.

We all went back to the community center to regroup and get ready for lunch. We went to a restaurant and almost everybody ordered a pizza. My pizza was delicious! We travel with three Ethiopian kids our age to help us learn the culture, translate, and most of all become our friends. Their names are Wario, Girma, and Khalib. They all made us try this green hot sauce that was like fire in your mouth. According to them everyone is used to hot spices in Ethiopia so when Americans come, they are not used to how hot the food is. Besides the green sauce that we tried everything was great and we headed back to explore the city a little more.

After lunch, we walked right up to the dump. We went inside a small village that was right next to it and the craziest thing happened. The little kids who were with us all morning found us and walked with us again!

I could not understand how some of these families can live this close to the dump and be so happy with their lives. No one would ever live as close to a trash dump as these homes were in the United States. We all went into the village and Mark called us around this small boy. He then told us that the kid he was holding up had a tumor above his eye not too long ago. One of the families who sponsored his family paid for this child to have his tumor removed. The kid could not have been more than four years old. This story touched all of our hearts. God used the sponsor to save that little boy's life. A remarkable story that we will never forget.

In Ethiopia everything is about relationships, and I experienced that right when I got off the bus. A little kid named Honuk, 10 years old, ran right up to me and asked me my name. I was very impressed with his English, and for the rest of the day we were best friends. He asked me questions about everything that had to do with America and told me as much as he could about his life. Listening to him talk about his life just made me want to help him in every way I could. I gave him one of the soccer balls we brought and he was so excited to get a new ball. As he was carrying the ball around all his friends you could tell he felt really special that he had the new Nike soccer ball. Throughout the day I kept finding myself thinking how smart this kid is and if there was anything I could do to help his life. He was so joyful and happy to be where he was.

All the kids were so happy! They were happy because they know that they mean something to someone who lives outside their village. That means so much to them. Honuk and some of the other kids wanted us to remember their names so bad that they wrote them on our arms. He borrowed a pen from a street vendor and pressed as hard as he could to spell out his name. The moment that will never leave my mind is when we were all getting on the bus to leave my new friend Honuk ran up to the bus and waved for me to open the window. With a smiling face and love in his eyes he said, "Charlie, I will miss you. I will pray for you." Those were the types of moments we all experienced today and I think we all agreed that we will never forget this day.

Walking through the city we saw more little kids laughing, playing, and loving each other than anywhere in the U.S. We saw mothers more proud of their homes than most mothers in America. They might not have as much money or opportunity but they have more joy and spirit. This day was an incredible day that we will always cherish in our hearts.  

Videos from the 2014 CATSPY Awards

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UK Athletics hosted the 12th annual CATSPY Awards on Monday in Memorial Coliseum, with student-athletes, coaches and staff dressing up to celebrate a memorable 2013-14. You can find all the award winner right here, but the highlight of the evening is always the video produced by Kentucky Wildcats TV. Check them all out below.

Happy Dance


Men's Tennis

Women's Soccer


Track and Field

Men's Swimming and Diving

Women's Swimming and Diving

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.

The Kentucky swimming and diving teams' regular-season finale on Saturday will take on added significance, and not just because it's the final competition before next week's Southeastern Conference Championships.

The meet at Lancaster Aquatic Center vs. Cincinnati will mark "Senior Day," giving head coach Lars Jorgensen a chance to honor the first class of Wildcats he will see graduate since taking over the reins of the program last summer.

And for Jorgensen the fact that the 2014 seniors have made it through four years of what he calls "the grind" together is something to be especially proud of.

While graduating college is an achievement any student should be proud of, doing so while balancing the responsibilities of being a Division I athlete takes on added weight. Add to that the taxing weight of swimming and diving practices -- including the year-round two-a-day practices often during early, cold and dark hours that go along with that training -- and making it through four-to-five years of eligibility becomes an even more impressive achievement.

"I think their experience at UK really is going to allow them to be successful in life, and I feel really confident about that," Jorgensen said. "I'm not going to argue necessarily that swimmers are the best athletes on this campus, that's not my point. But I think in terms of mental toughness, we are the best. For us there's really no offseason, it's like 50 weeks a year, twice-a-day for 50 weeks. For them to make it, makes them survivors, because a lot of their piers didn't make it."

Perhaps most noteworthy in looking back at the current senior class's ability to endure the hardships of competing at the collegiate level for four years was the fact that this group of Wildcats accomplished the feat together.

"They made it through together, and I think is a badge of honor with that. Many want to come out and try it out, but very few make it through. All sports are difficult in their own way, but with swimming and diving, the amount of hours and the grind is pretty difficult compared to most other sports. The seniors have endured, and overcome challenges, which most importantly will help them be successful in life."

Given how momentous the seniors' accomplishment of eventually earning a degree while competing at such a high level is, the program is implementing new ways of honoring its seniors.

"It's going to be a really emotional day," graduating junior Lindsay Hill said. "Three and a half years of hard work being with this team is summing up to an end. I'm kind of nervous to be honest ... it's going to be a really good meet, and I know everyone is going to be swimming for the seniors, and wanting to put on a good show."

Indeed, for the new UK coach there's a certain nostalgia that will last with him about his first graduating class of Wildcats.

"Their parents are going to be here, which is pretty cool, and they will get mint julep cups," Jorgensen said. "The ceremonial aspect of it is something new for us. This is the first year we've really wanted to involve the parents. We haven't done that before.

"Almost all the parents are going to be here. It's pretty cool because it's really difficult as an athlete at this level to do it for four years. A lot of the walk-ons aren't getting anything, perks per say, other than being on the team. That to me is pretty cool. A lot of walk-ons have been here for four years through a lot of ups and downs."

And the highs and lows that go along with competing at such a high level have contributed to the group feel of the Wildcats being honored.

For senior, three-year captain Maclin Simpson, just about everything that goes along with representing UK in the pool will be missed.

"It's really difficult to pinpoint one memory or experience that stands out," Simpson said. "It's more just the day-to-day, coming in and being with your teammates and your best friends. Being in the locker room before and after workouts and being on the bus. It's really the little moments that sort of add up to being part of a team incredible."

Jorgensen is also cognizant of the everyday occurrences that add up to a memorable college swimming and diving experience.

"There's something to be said for long bus trips to and from meets, whether the outcome was good or bad," the UK coach said. "Yes, it's often uncomfortable, but there are a certain bonding opportunities that stem from being together so many times. That's one thing this group will always have."

Leadership is certainly a quality required to help endure those challenges as well as build the camaraderie that now seems so invaluable. Said trait is in heavy supply amongst the class the Wildcats will honor on Saturday, especially amongst the captains.

Greg Ferrucci certainly jumps to the top of the list, but many more have made lasting impacts on the program..

"He is our All-American, the best athlete on our team," Jorgensen said of Ferrucci. "He's phenomenal, has done a lot of good things. He's a world-class diver, but he's also developed a great sense of competitiveness. He likes the pressure moments.

"With our senior captains, a cool thing Maclin Simpson did was go to Ethiopia this summer with the athletic department as a way to expand his horizons. I think it was a life-changing experience for him. He's been a three-year captain and a Kentucky boy which is really cool. Lindsay Hill is a perfect 4.0 student; she's never not had an A. She's a great leader, a team-oriented person who has made a big difference developing our team here in our first year. John Fox and Lucas Gerotto are also great leaders who care a lot about UK, which is really cool."

Jorgensen is certainly appreciative of the leadership qualities his seniors have displayed in this his first season as UK head coach.

In fact, while they may not be around to directly impact the program's upward growth in future years, he's adamant that the 2014 senior class's impact will be felt down the road, nonetheless.

"It's always difficult when you have change, but they've been awesome," Jorgensen said. "I'm really thankful that I was here last year as associate head coach because it allowed me to get to know some of them so it's not my first year with them. It's a little bit different role now, but they've embraced it.

"They've been great in terms of recruiting, which is great because sometimes seniors become disinterested. All of the seniors have been engaged and very involved, so I've been real pleased with them as a group, their evolution. I think we've made a lot of progress this year with little details of recruiting that you're not going to see the impact until three or four years from now. I think we laid a lot of the groundwork. We may be a little bit better this year than last year, but not significantly. But I think it's going in the right direction where some of the changes we made this year are going to lead to a better future. All of our seniors have had an impact on that."

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