By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In August 1978, UVa promoted assistant Mark Bernardino, making him head coach of its men’s and women’s swimming teams.
His alma mater was not then the national power in those sports that it is now. In the beginning, average swimmers populated Bernardino’s programs. But there were exceptions, such as Phil Perdue.
“He was the first great swimmer I’ve coached,” Bernardino said. “He would have made a run for the 1980 Olympic team if the U.S. [hadn’t boycotted those Games].”
Perdue was a three-time individual ACC champion at Virginia, winning the 100-yard freestyle in 1978, the 50 free in ’79 and the 50 free in ’80. He was an All-American in the 50 and 100 free in 1980.
Some 30 years later, another Perdue is starring for the Wahoos: his younger daughter, Lauren.
“I don’t want to be jumping the gun on anything too quickly,” Bernardino said, “but she’s as good a first-year swimmer in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle events as I’ve seen in a long time in the ACC and nationally.”
Lauren, who was born in Charlottesville, already holds school records in the 50-yard free (22.40 seconds) and 100 free (48.78). She also holds the Aquatic and Fitness Center pool record in the 200 free (1:45.32), only .06 seconds slower than the school record set by Megan Evo in 2009.
“I haven’t been too surprised,” Phil Perdue said. “As a 12-year-old, she was already one of the top sprinters in the nation.”
The Perdue presence in Bernardino’s program is strong. The women’s team also includes Lauren’s sister, Meredith, a second-year freestyler who Bernardino said has “improved tremendously since she’s been here.”
The sisters are graduates of J.H. Rose High School in Greenville, N.C., where their father is an orthopedic surgeon.
Meredith’s decision to swim for Virginia pleased Phil Perdue, who said he was sure Bernardino “would take care of her. I knew that she would work hard, and I know he likes hard workers.”
Lauren took official visits to Georgia and Tennessee and had a trip planned to Auburn, but she never made it there. Lauren cancelled that visit after committing to UVa, where she’d attended Bernardino’s camp as a girl and a school to which her parents had multiple ties.
Phil Perdue, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics in 1980, went to medical school at UVa and did his residency there as well. Tammy Perdue has two degrees from UVa’s nursing school. Phil Perdue also was a graduate assistant under Bernardino for one year.
“I’ve always dreamed of coming here,” Lauren said after a recent practice, and that Meredith already was on Grounds helped the ‘Hoos’ chances of landing one of the nation’s most coveted recruits.
“We’re very close,” Lauren said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything without her.”
When they were younger, Lauren said, the sisters “used to fight a lot. Now that we’re in college we’ve matured. We push each other, and she’s my best friend.”
Lauren loves to surf, and she played as soccer and volleyball as a girl. Still, it was almost inevitable that she’d gravitate to swimming. Not only was her father a college standout, so was her mother, who starred at William and Mary.
“The combination of the father’s genetics and the mother’s genetics, they converged perfectly in their daughter,” Bernardino said.
Lauren came down with mononucleosis not long after arriving at UVa last summer and missed three weeks of swimming. She recovered quickly, though, and soon established herself as the team’s top sprinter.
Her best events are the 50, 100 and 200 free, and “she’s equally adept in each and every one of them,” Bernardino said.
In the 100 free, Lauren said, she’d been trying to break 49 seconds for about two years. In a meet Jan. 23 at North Carolina, she reached her goal, swimming 48.78 to surpass the UVa record of 48.99 set last year by Mei Christensen.
“Doing that without being rested or tapering and without a fast suit, I felt really good about,” Lauren said. “I wasn’t necessarily feeling that fresh going in.”
Bernardino is renowned for the grueling workouts he puts his swimmers through, and the schedule “was a little bit of a shock at first,” Lauren acknowledged.
In addition to training in the water, swimmers do a myriad of dry-land activities, including running, weight lifting and abdominal exercises.
“There’s no question that her work ethic has improved,” Bernardino said. “Sometimes when you’re this good and have been this good your whole life, you take for granted your talent.
“That’s one of the critical components to her long-term success: equally matching her God-given talents with a better and stronger work ethic on a daily basis.”
The ‘Hoos closed the regular season by whipping Pittsburgh on Jan. 30. Next up for the women are the ACC championships, Feb. 17-20 in Chapel Hill, N.C. The NCAA women’s championships are March 18-20 in West Lafayette, Ind.
Under Bernardino, the ‘Hoos have won 10 of the past 11 ACC men’s titles. The UVa women are two-time defending ACC champions and have won seven conference crowns during Bernardino’s tenure.
When he swam at UVa, Phil Perdue recalled, “it was a whole different world. We were the laughingstock of the ACC.”
But Bernardino, who has collected 26 coach-of-the-year awards from the ACC, built his programs “one swimmer at a time,” as Phil Perdue put it, and UVa now regularly produces All-Americans.
It will be a surprise if Lauren Perdue doesn’t one day add her name to that list. She qualified for the Olympic Trials in 2008, and her times in the 50, 100 and 200 free are the fastest in the ACC this season.
“Ultimately,” she said, “I want to make the Olympic team in 2012. I really want to represent my country, and I want to use this talent that God’s given me for the best and see what happens.”