How Lars Jorgensen Built an SEC Winning Program at Kentucky

The University of Kentucky women's swim team defeated Vanderbilt University 187-72 on Wednesday, October 4, 2017, at Lancaster Aquatic Center in Lexington, Ky. Photos by Noah J. Richter | UK Athletics
Photo Courtesy: Chet White Noah J. Richter

When Lars Jorgensen was hired as head coach of the University of Kentucky in 2013, the program was one of the bottom feeders of the stacked Southeastern Conference. In his first season in Lexington in 2014, the team was 10th in the conference, and had only been higher than fourth once – a third place finish in 1999. The Wildcats weren’t a destination for the nation’s top recruits and certainly didn’t have a reputation on the national stage.

So in his eighth season with the program, it was understandable why it was such a huge achievement to come home with the SEC women’s title.

“One of the goals when I took over the program was to keep building and get better every year,” Lars Jorgensen told Swimming World.

“It started eight years ago with the kids on that team that believed in it. It has to start somewhere. We started to establish the culture with the way we wanted to do things, and we just got better every year. This team got the job done and got us over the hump. Establishing the culture takes a long time and we started doing things the right way a few years ago. It got better every single year. This year we were extremely deep and we took advantage of that at the SEC meet.”

It was around a year ago when Jorgensen and the Kentucky staff realized they had the most returning points for the SEC meet. That doesn’t always mean a team is destined to win, but it is a good sign.

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Lars Jorgensen (left) at a TYR Pro Swim Series in 2018. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“It was a year ago, we started talking about ‘let’s see if we can win this,'” Jorgensen said. “We aren’t a team with a bunch of superstars necessarily but our depth had to win the meet. Every single swimmer on the team scored and we had a few at a last chance meet in Tennessee that would have scored that weren’t on the conference team. Our depth was outstanding.

“It is a testament to the women working hard together every single day and for me it was rewarding because it was a total team effort. It wasn’t just one person leading the charge.”

For Kentucky and Jorgensen, he didn’t just feel the excitement coming from the 22 swimmers on deck in Athens, but from generations and generations of Kentucky Wildcats that he had never even met. On Sunday upon returning to campus, Jorgensen had received, in his own words, up to 400 text messages with congratulations. Alumni had welcomed the team back to Lexington that needed a police escort to come home.

“That was the coolest thing because a lot of the alumni reached out during the meet. (Senior) Bailey Bonnett made this really cool video that we showed the team where some of the alumni spoke what it meant to be on the team and what it meant to win to people like Asia (Seidt), Geena (Freriks) and many others that built our program. Last year we lost two of our best swimmers ever in Asia and Ali Galyer but we were actually better this year.

“I give them the credit because we wouldn’t be where we are if it wasn’t for them,” Jorgensen, who swam undergrad at the University of Tennessee and swam in the 1988 Olympics in the 1500 for the U.S.

Two years ago in the lead-up to SECs, Swimming World talked to Freriks about how Kentucky had been rising to be an SEC power during her time there.

“(Lars) really reinforces if the freshmen class is not faster than the senior class that left the previous year then we are not going to get better as a team,” Freriks said in 2019. “So I think it really makes everyone step up and everyone really gets better. It’s hard not to with all these practices. We are really supportive of each other in practice and our culture has been great. And you have to have good leaders on the team and I think we really do a good job of that.”

Winning an SEC title without two of your program’s best swimmers of all-time certainly attests to great leadership and strength in recruiting.

“They bought in really from day one and our team was led by leaders,” Jorgensen said. “Any team that wins in any sport needs good leadership and our leaders were awesome all year. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Establishing a Reputation

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National champion Danielle Galyer in 2016. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Kentucky had built up a reputation the last few years as ‘Backstroke U’ on the women’s side. It is hard to pinpoint when exactly the name was coined, but when Danielle Galyer won the school’s first national title in swimming in the 200 backstroke in 2016, it marked a program shift. After that, Asia Seidt joined the team, and the Wildcats scored four in the A-Final of the 200 back at SECs, with three of the four reaching the A-Final at NCAAs. The team also finished top three at SECs in 2017 for the first time in 18 years.

Every year since then, the Wildcats have had at least three in the SEC A-Final of the 200 back, which not only established a reputation in that event, but gravitated towards the 200s of strokes.

“When people go into the backstroke group there is a certain level of expectations that they have to perform,” Lars Jorgensen said. We had this girl Parker Herren who was a walk-on from small town Kentucky and I think in high school she may have been a 2:04 in the 200 back. She just kept getting better and better. We have a few of those people that really came out of nowhere to really help our team. She had two A-Finals.”

The momentum started rolling early for the Wildcats on the first day when they won the 800 free relay for the school’s first relay title at SECs since 2007. But it was the Friday night session where Jorgensen felt the team really hit a stride, that poured into the last day. Lauren Poole and Gillian Davey went 1-2 in the 400 IM. Riley Gaines was champion in the 200 free, and the Wildcats had an A-finalist in all but one event.

“They were pretty inspired that day. To do something that has never been done before in school history was inspiring for them. I’m joking that even if we won 10 titles eventually, that this team would still be the first. They bought into that.

“That was really the key morning, the 100 fly, 400 IM and 200 free, and that vaulted us. We knew six months ago that if we were close going into the last day that we were really strong in the 200 strokes and we’d have a chance.”

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Kentucky’s winning 800 free relay. The school’s first relay title at the SEC meet since 2007. Photo Courtesy: Tony Walsh/UGA Athletics

And Jorgensen’s attention wasn’t all on the pool. Over 700 miles away, the diving portion of the SEC championship was taking place at the University of Missouri, and the scores were being added into the final score during the meet. Although Jorgensen was keeping up with everything going on with his swimmers, he and the rest of the team were keeping tabs on the divers through divemeets.com knowing that they would be instrumental in securing an SEC title.

“I was like, ‘score more points!’ Like any swim coach does,” Jorgensen said with a laugh. “Kyndal Knight won the 3m last year, and she was really good this year. She didn’t dive well in platform last year but this year she did, so her points were great. We have a sophomore, who was injured all year, but stepped up and dove really well in Morgan Southall and we have a freshman Van McKinley from Lexington and she scored twice and did her job. Our women did what they could. Our diving coach is awesome Ted Hautau. He has done everything he could to keep our diving team – women and men – relevant, and they did their job too.”

And it was on the last day, after the heats of the 200 back, 100 free, 200 breast and 200 fly, where the Wildcats had an A-Finalist in every event, where a SEC team title seemed within reach.

Florida had out-scored Kentucky in the 1650, but the Wildcats put together the swims they needed to close out the meet on Saturday. With no DQ on the last relay, the SEC title would be coming to Lexington, something that many didn’t see before the season, not just because Kentucky had never won, but because of the uncertain status over the season all year.

“I thought if we stayed healthy we would have a good team and a good chance. I give the women credit for being diligent in staying safe. There were challenges all year. Our freshmen never had the normal experience of going to football games and having class with people and meeting new people. It was all different. But in some ways, all the stuff we had to go through, our Athletic Director told the team this, that winning during the COVID year may be even more special because of all the stuff we had to do. Everyone had to do it! But we are lucky we overcame that.”

The next step for Kentucky is to finish the season at NCAAs. Jorgensen has reiterated to the team that the season is not done, and the program is chasing history once more: the Wildcats have never been top ten on the women’s side. With 14 swimmers qualified for the meet, it is within range to achieve that.

“They have been so positive all year,” Lars Jorgensen said. “It has been a great group to coach. It wasn’t just at the meet. I think it was them being positive and being determined that has helped. Those are some of the mantras for us in being together as a group. It paid off at SECs with everyone scoring which was pretty remarkable.”

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