By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — On a recent morning in his office at UVa’s Aquatic and Fitness Center, Mark Bernardino was happily discussing his alma mater’s latest championships in ACC swimming when he caught himself.
He was well into an interview, Bernardino realized, and had yet to mention Lauren Perdue. That speaks to how dominant she’s been as a Cavalier.
“Speaking of great meets, Lauren had absolutely a great meet, but I guess that’s not surprising,” said Bernardino, who has coached the men’s and women’s teams at UVa since 1978.
“That’s not fair, either. She had a great meet, and I shouldn’t come to expect it. I should be better at praising her for being as spectacular as she is.”
Perdue, only a sophomore, is one of 11 swimmers from UVa in Austin, Texas, this week for the NCAA women’s championships, which begin Thursday.
She already ranks among the most decorated swimmers in UVa history. Perdue was named the most outstanding swimmer at the ACC championships in 2010 and, to her surprise, again last month.
“I didn’t know that I would get it this year, because I had gotten third in the 50 [freestyle],” Perdue said Monday. “It was really exciting, and kind of a shock. I’m just really proud to be part of this team and to represent the University of Virginia.”
She’s not the first member of her family to do so. Her father, Phil Perdue, was a three-time individual ACC champion for Bernardino, winning the 100 free in 1978, the 50 free in ’79 and the 50 free in ’80.
Her sister, Meredith, is a junior on the UVa team who, like Lauren, specializes in the freestyle.
As a freshman, Lauren swam on four relay teams that won ACC championships. She also won ACC titles in the 50 free, 100 free and 200 free. And so it was news when, on the second day of this year’s ACC meet in Atlanta, she placed third in the 50 free.
“I was definitely expecting to win at the finals that night,” Perdue said. “It was a little discouraging coming in third. I wasn’t particularly rested for that meet. My focus was on NCAAs. But I just kind of used it as motivation to swim faster the rest of the meet.”
By meet’s end, Perdue had won the 100 and 200 free and helped the Cavaliers win three relays: the 200, 400 and 800 free. More important to her, Perdue helped the Wahoos capture their fourth consecutive ACC championship, a first for the program on the women’s side.
This title did not come easily. Not until the final night of the meet, in the penultimate swimming event, did the ‘Hoos take the lead for good.
“This was definitely the toughest win we’ve ever pulled out,” Perdue said, “and I think it really brought us together as a team, because we had to fight to win. We had to fight every single event and swim as fast as we ever have in our lives. And so I think it really made our mentality stronger, and we came back on top.”
The members of this UVa team had rarely, if ever, trailed at the ACC championships during their careers. But on the second-to-last day of the meet, Bernardino recalled, the North Carolina Tar Heels “hit us with everything they had. They absolutely rocked us back on our heels. They backed us into a corner. They did everything but knock us down.
“From that point on in the meet, there could not be a bad swim, there could not be a lack of focus, there could not be a lack of intensity. We had to have this incredible sense of purpose and be on a mission of perfection, because we were in a difficult place in terms of being able to pull it out … And so this really brought out characteristics and traits in this group of women that we hoped were there, but we hadn’t seen them on display before.”
For the UVa women’s program, the ACC title was its ninth under Bernardino.
“To me, it was an extraordinarily special victory, because they had to come from behind,” he said. “They had to face some adversity, they had to rally together emotionally and unite as a team. As we told them Friday night and Saturday morning, there was no room for error. Everybody had to have a perfect swim in the morning and make it back into the finals. We figured it would take 15 top-eight swims, which is very, very hard to do, out of the 18 swims that we had that morning. Fifteen of them had to result in a place in the finals, and I think we got 16.”
Perdue said: “We won this for our seniors. They’re just a great group of people, and they work so hard in practice every day.”
A season ago, at West Lafayette, Ind., UVa placed ninth at the NCAA women’s championships. The team’s goal, Perdue said, is to finish in the top 10 again.
She’ll be extraordinarily busy in Austin. Perdue, a Charlottesville native who grew up in Greenville, N.C., is competing in seven events at the NCAAs: the 50, 100 and 200 free; the 200, 400 and 800 free relays; and the 400 medley relay.
In West Lafayette, Perdue placed fifth in the 50 free and eighth in the 200 free, earning All-America honors in each event, and finished 14th in the 100 free. She swam on three All-America relay teams, helping UVa finish fifth in the 400 medley relay, eighth in the 200 free relay and eighth in the 400 free relay.
Those accomplishments notwithstanding, she was not satisfied.
“I struggled a little bit at NCAAs having to swim a few weeks after ACCs,” Perdue recalled. “And so this year I’ve been training in middle distance with Mark, and so I’ve been getting some more conditioning in, more endurance training, which I think will help my 200 freestyle especially. It’ll help me kind of last throughout NCAAs.”
She holds school records in the 50 free (22.16 seconds), 100 free (47.88) and 200 free (1:43.73). Her times in the 100 and 200 are also ACC records. Best of all for Bernardino, he can look forward to more two years with Perdue.