By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Perhaps she’ll be a senator or congresswoman herself one day. For now, Amanda Faulkner is a summer intern in the office of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and she’s loving life on Capitol Hill.
“It’s fantastic,” Faulkner said by phone from D.C. the other day. “You read about politics, and it seems like such a large-scale thing, and then you’re here in the middle of it, and everyone knows each other. It’s really cool to be a part of it. I’ve learned a lot.”
McConnell is a Republican from Kentucky. That’s the home state of Faulkner, a UVa swimmer who was born and raised in Louisville.
A summer ago, after her second year at UVa, Faulkner served an internship with John Heyburn II, a federal judge in Louisville. Heyburn wrote a letter of recommendation when Faulkner applied for an internship with McConnell. So did her coach at Virginia, Mark Bernardino.
The internship is “taking her away from probably three or four practice sessions a week [in Charlottesville], and that’s not necessarily the preferred way to go in terms of bettering her swimming,” Bernardino said.
“But by the same token, this is something she’s passionate about, and it’s something that she could potentially pursue as a professional. So from that perspective, and because this is such an unusual opportunity, when Amanda requested to be allowed to do this, we agreed.”
Faulkner, who’s majoring in government and philosophy, is about halfway through her six-week internship. She’s living in the Adams Morgan section of Washington with a friend from Louisville, and she trains at a pool in nearby Columbia Heights.
“Obviously you can’t expect to be in top-notch shape when you’re working from 8:30 to 5:30 every day,” said Faulkner, the defending ACC champion in the 200 individual medley, “but our deal was that I would swim once a day while I’m here.
“I’m really grateful for [Bernardino] giving me an opportunity to come here and do this, because this is something that I’d like to pursue and be involved in after school.”
McConnell has about 20 permanent staffers, a group supplemented by six interns in the summer. Faulkner spends most of her time in the Russell Senate Office Building, where she starts each work day by getting caught up on national news and articles in which McConnell has been mentioned.
Among other duties, Faulkner gives tours of the Capitol, “which is kind of cool,” she said. “I’m a member of the Guide Service at UVa, so it’s sharpening my skills a little bit for that.”
She also helps full-time staffers answer questions from constituents and assists with policy research. “Pretty much whatever they need me to do,” Faulker said. “I’m just kind of getting to see what goes on here in the Senate.”
It’s not unusual for her to encounter famous politicians at work, and “I’m still starstruck,” Faulkner said with a laugh. “You’re walking through the halls and you’re passing senators and members of Congress, and you have to sort of keep yourself together. But you just want to run up and say, ‘Can I have a picture, please?’ “
Early in the summer, McConnell met with his interns and had photos taken with them. Because of McConnell’s leadership role in the Senate, “we don’t cross paths very much,” Faulkner said, “but it’s such an honor to be working for him, even though I’m not seeing him all the time.”
Faulkner, 21, has taken the LSAT and plans on attending law school one day. By the time she graduates from UVa next year, she’ll have left her mark on the ACC’s premier swimming program.
In six events — 100 backstroke (10th), 200 back (5th), 100 breaststroke (7th), 200 breast (5th), 400 IM (4th) and 200 IM (4th) — Faulkner’s times rank among the top 10 on UVa’s all-time list.
“She had a phenomenal breakthrough year as a junior,” Bernardino said. “She was very good in her first and second years, but I think she failed to live up to her own dreams and expectations. I’m not sure whether her dreams and expectations were as realistic as she thought they were, but she failed to live up to her personal expectations for herself.
“Then this season, after struggling with the decision as to whether or not to even continue swimming, once she made the decision to aggressively pursue her swimming, she had a breakout season.
“She was one of our really, really big, big surprises in the water at the conference championship meet. She just finally was able to relax at that meet, to believe in herself and to let all of her talents come through. And she did in fact reach all of the goals and all of the high expectations that she has for herself, mainly because I think she finally stopped putting pressure on herself. She stopped seeing the end result and instead enjoyed what she was doing.”
In each of Faulkner’s three seasons, she helped UVa win the ACC title. Her junior year, however, was the first in which she advanced to the NCAA championships. After specializing in the backstroke as a freshman and sophomore, she focused more on the breaststroke in 2009-10. She qualified for the NCAAs in three events: 200 breast, 200 IM and 400 IM.
“Just that change, I think, taking the pressure out of having to be a backstroker and concentrating on something new,” Bernardino said, “really opened up a new world of possibilities to her, and I think she thrived within that world of possibility.”