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."
The Lancaster Aquatics Center has had a new energy about it since May, when Lars Jorgensen took over as the UK swimming and diving program's first new head coach in 22 years.
The UK swimmers, divers and staff members have had plenty to buzz about, and they haven't even had a home meet yet. That all changes on Friday at 5 p.m. ET when the Wildcats will host Ohio State in a dual meet, which will be the team's second competition of the season.
"We're looking forward to Ohio State on Friday," Jorgensen said. "We have a chance to be at home, which is a huge advantage for us. I think both the women and the men are going to be very competitive against Ohio State. We look forward to hearing the fans come out to support the Wildcats on Friday."
The Wildcats will without doubt be up for their first home meet of the 2013-14 campaign, but they will also be hoping some of their excitement rubs off on the Big Blue Nation.
The die-hard swimming and diving fans in the Lexington community always turn up to support the Wildcats at their few home meets. Yet those who don't keep the sport on their radar all the time, especially in Olympic years, could also be in store for a good time at the first of UK's two home meets this season.
Jorgensen and his staff have taken it upon themselves to create a more fan-friendly atmosphere starting on Friday.
The meet will begin the way many sporting events in Kentucky do: with a UK marching band member playing the "Call to the Post." In support of Breast Cancer Awareness the team will be wearing pink swim caps, and all fans who wear pink to the meet will be entered into a raffle to win a prize.
Still, Jorgensen and the rest of UK's swimming and diving program have no illusions. The fact remains that the greatest excitement at any athletics event comes from the competition, and the more competitive the meet is the more entertaining it is.
To that end UK will have a solid nucleus of returning stars with four athletes who qualified for the 2013 NCAA Championships. Chief among them will be senior diver Greg Ferrucci, who became the first ever UK diver to earn First-Team All-America honors on the 1-meter, 3-meter and platform during the same season in 2013.
"Greg Ferrucci is our superstar diver," Jorgensen said. "He was UK Athlete of the Year at the CATSPY Awards among all sports, which is phenomenal. Every time he competes in a dual meet setting he gives the team a great chance to take two of the 16 events. That's a big help."
Ferrucci is off to a great start to his senior season, having won both the 1- and 3-meter competitions in the season-opener at Georgia two weeks ago. Ferrucci and Christa Cabot on the women's side headline the diving teams, which are currently focal points of the program.
"We have a really good diving program," Jorgensen said. "It gives us a chance against the No. 13 Ohio State men's program. Both are outstanding programs, but our diving will be a big difference to me."
It's a testament to Jorgensen's team-first philosophy in a sport, which is at its core very much individual-based, that even when talking about some of most effective contributors he ties it back to how everything fits in with the team.
"It is all about the team in college," Jorgensen said. "To me that's what is fun. It's a lot different than the Olympics, which is all based on individuals making a team. College swimming is all about the team. That's what I love about it. I'm not as concerned about just one particular person, our staff buys into the philosophy of it all adding up as a team."
UK's swimming program is not yet as developed as the diving aspect. The challenge of getting his teams to be more balanced across all disciplines is something Jorgensen is meeting head on, both in developing his current team as well as recruiting potential newcomers.
"We try to get our kids better every day," Jorgensen said. "Every single day is an opportunity for us to get better. If it's 6 a.m. or if it's in the afternoon I love going to practice. Everybody has some things they love about their job, but my favorite thing is practice. I love the opportunity to teach and try to make kids better.
"Recruiting and establishing the base of your team with kids that have good character and work ethic is important. Instilling that across the board is challenging. Once you have that ability you can create a culture where you are able to attract some better recruits."
Jorgensen is just months into a project that will take at least a few years to reach the new head coach's ultimate vision. Still the prospect of helping, and watching, as his team improves is what Jorgensen finds most exciting.
As intriguing as Jorgensen may find the day-to-day grind of swimming and diving training -- a process that takes hours of each day and pushes the human body beyond imaginable limits if it is to yield the results UK's coach has said he desires -- athletes still need benchmarks to keep them encouraged that they're on the right track.
And an early step to reaching those benchmarks will be establishing a home-meet experience that generates a buzz in the local community. People take notice when teams improve, and the UK swimming and diving teams will look to show how much they've done just that on Friday.
Kentucky swimming and diving will host its home opener with Ohio State on at 5 p.m. ET at the Lancaster Aquatics Center on the UK campus. Here's what first-year head coach Lars Jorgensen had to say to preview the meet.
The Kentucky swimming and diving team participated in team-building exercises this week. (UK Athletics)
A day before the first official practice of the 2013-14 season, the University of Kentucky swimming and diving team participated in a day of team-building exercises.
Led by Jason Cummins - the director of the UK Athletics Impact Leadership Program - and staff members from the ROTC program, the Wildcats joined together to solve mental and physical challenges and obstacles.
"It was great to get all the team together, with such a large and diverse team," UK head coach Lars Jorgensen said. "The best time of the year is at the beginning, to bring everyone together, we don't often have that opportunity while we're training, so it was a good way to start out our training. We want to thank Jason Cummins and the ROTC staff for helping us out."
The purpose of the team building activities was to get the team to think and work together. Each station was different, and the lessons learned on each event varied. Thought processes or methods didn't carry over from station to station. The team learned to move together and communicate better on various exercises.
"I think what we got out of the team building exercises was firstly that we learned a lot about ourselves, what our strengths and weaknesses are," senior Maclin Simpson said. "Most importantly though, we learned about each other. We learned how to get to know one another in order to find out our teammates' strengths and weaknesses so that we could utilize them in order to come together.
"There was a station that involved a circle with a white line around it. There were strategically placed cinder blocks and we had three wooden beams, all different sizes. We had to get everyone across the pit, just using the beams without touching the grass. We had to figure out which beam to use, how to pass it around and how to get across. The most important thing about that was communication, how to communicate effectively with one another. That's incredibly important in a team sport."
Other stations included pulling a teammate on a tarp for a strength and endurance event and two puzzles with different shaped pieces of wood.
The goal was to get the team working and thinking together before they begin the season Sept. 25 at Georgia. The 2013-14 campaign, which lasts six months, will be a demanding test for the 'Cats. The team-building exercises before the season began hopefully will make that road to March a little easier.
Maclin Simpson helped deliver basic necessities to residents of Ethiopia on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
This week, eight Wildcats are taking part in a service trip in Ethiopia. Throughout the week, the student-athletes will take turns describing their experience. Please note that these posts are the personal reactions of the student-athletes and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky and UK Athletics. With the travel party set to return to the United States on Monday, Maclin Simpson writes about what he saw on Sunday.
Maclin Simpson (swimming and diving)
I woke up this morning feeling mixed emotions about the day ahead. On one hand, I was excited for another opportunity to serve the people of Ethiopia with a group of friends I would consider family. On the other, I was anxious because I knew that my expectations were about to be shattered into a million pieces, yet again turning my world upside down.
The day started just like any other. We had breakfast at the guest house followed by a quick meeting before we set out. After reconfirming our flight information, we had about an hour or so to kill so we made our way over to the zoo. I use the term "zoo" loosely because it isn't comparable to anything you would find in the U.S. More or less it was just one massive, circular cage with about ten lions that looked like they could eat any one of us without a moment's hesitation. Regardless, it was still a cool experience.
Then it all changed.
The moment that we got out of the van at the community center, we were swarmed with loving children. It was unbelievable to see the pure joy in their faces just to hold our hands and walk with us. Our task was to fill bags with assorted basic necessities and deliver them to widows and other families. Throughout our time there, the one thing that was constant was how gracious these amazing people were. It didn't matter who we were, just that we came. To them, we were an answered prayer and a gift from God. Every home that we visited (most were about half the size of a dorm room, dark and housing up to seven people) we prayed over the people about whatever physical or emotional discomfort was troubling them. Each time, without fail, they would tell us how much they loved us and prayed that God would bless us and our families. It's incredible that a village and people in such desperate need of financial capital were so content with human capital. The last home we visited was of a widow who suffers from tuberculosis; Jarrod Polson and I literally had to chase after her because she was so excited to invite us into her home and introduce us to her children. We sat, prayed and shared a hug that could have lasted a lifetime. It is those types of moments that make me realize how much of a gift from God life truly is and how much I take for granted on a daily basis. We all left that village changed and with memories that we will never forget.
Tomorrow is our last day here. I am going to miss this place and will forever be grateful for the opportunities given, experiences had, but most importantly for the people that I have met and the relationships I have formed.
Late dive coach Mike Lyden is being remembered by his daughters through a charitable act. (UK Athletics)
Allison Perry of UK Public Relations has written a fantastic piece about the daughters of late Kentucky dive coach "Iron" Mike Lyden who passed away from lung cancer in 2008. Lyden's daughters (Jessica 22 and Brittany 14) have come up with a way to give back to the UK Markey Cancer Center where Mike received treatment.
The daughter's decided to make homemade bracelets with white ribbons representing lung cancer, and at seven dollars a piece, they have raised more than $1,000 to date which all goes toward the Mike Lyden Patient Support Fund.
Not only has their experience with their father produced this charitable endeavor, but it's also helped strengthen Jessica's drive to pursue her medical career to help others.
"I've wanted to pursue a medical career since I was very young, and the experience we went through with my dad's illness and passing has only strengthened that dream," Jessica said. "I hope that one day as a physician, I will be able to confidently tell patients, 'We have a cure, and you will never have to worry about cancer again.' That may not be a reality for every type of cancer, but we can't stop working toward that goal."
To read the rest of the story from Perry about the Lyden family, click here.