July 13, 2012

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — When his daughter touched the wall to secure fourth place in the 200-meter freestyle at last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials, a wave of emotions washed over Phil Perdue.

Any father, of course, would be proud of a child who earned a spot on the Olympic swimming team. But Phil Perdue has an unusual perspective. Not only was he an elite swimmer himself, he’s an orthopedic surgeon. So his daughter Lauren’s feat June 28 at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., held special significance for the former University of Virginia star.

“After I cried for an hour, it was great,” Phil Perdue recalled with a laugh. “With what she’s been through, it’s just been such an emotional year for us. As a physician and as a swimmer, I had kind of an inside view of just what she was dealing with.”

Lauren Perdue, then a UVa junior, underwent surgery March 3 to remove a small piece of bone that had broken off a facet joint in her back. For nearly a year, she had been struggling with back pain that doctors tried, unsuccessful, to treat non-surgically.

“She’s been through an enormous amount of testing,” Phil Perdue said, “and nothing really seemed to have been working, all the shots and injections.”

After her operation, Lauren was out of the water for nearly five weeks this spring — a pivotal period during which other Olympic hopefuls were training full time. Given that, Lauren told reporters recently, she wasn’t especially confident about her prospects for making the Olympic team. Neither was her father.

“I just did not see the last page of the book, what was going to happen,” Phil Perdue said. “I felt like you can’t have any chinks in your armor to make the U.S. team in track and field or swimming, the sports that require so much conditioning. You just can’t have any excuses, and I thought that was a real big chink, a dent, and I didn’t know if she’d be able to overcome it, but she did.”

Lauren said: “I was that not confident that I would make the team, but I think that actually worked to my advantage, because I was calm going into the Olympic Trials, and I was kind of stress-free and didn’t really have any expectations for myself.”

With her fourth-place finish, Lauren made the U.S. team that will compete in London, starting late this month. She’s a member of the 800 free relay team.

“It’s still surreal to even believe that I am an Olympian and representing the United States,” she said. “Ever since I was a little girl, this has been a lifelong dream of mine. People would tell me, ‘Lauren, you could make the Olympic team, you could be an Olympian,’ but it’s hard to really grasp how I would feel at that moment in time.

“Just being able to live out this dream of mine is an amazing experience, and I feel so blessed and thankful to be able to represent the USA and UVa.”

For her parents, the Olympic Trials were “just incredibly emotional,” Phil Perdue said, “because it’s been such a hard year watching her kind of limp through the season. She missed meets, she didn’t go to NCAAs, and to watch someone that you know is pretty darn good not be able to even train, you feel like the year is kind of wasted away.

“We’re completely blown away by what she did.”

Lauren, who’s from Greenville, N.C., won’t be the only member of the UVa swimming family competing in London. Four other Olympians have direct ties to Virginia coach Mark Bernardino’s program: incoming freshman Yannick Kaeser (Switzerland) and former UVa stars Matt McLean (United States), David Karasek (Switzerland) and Katya Bachrouche (Lebanon).

“To have one Olympian is beyond belief for most programs and for most coaches,” Bernardino said, “but to have the opportunity to see five of our athletes participate and to represent their nations, and to represent this university and themselves and their families with pride and distinction, is a great moment for our team.”

For a coach, Bernardino said, little compares to seeing a swimmer qualify for the Olympics.

“It’s the highest level of achievement that an athlete can experience in our sport,” he said. “To understand the amount of work, the amount of focus, the amount of dedication, and the amount of good fortune that goes into being an Olympian [is difficult]. Everything has to happen just so perfectly at that exact moment in time on that exact day, or over the course of two days when you’re looking at proceeding from preliminaries to semifinals to finals.

“To hit that exact perfect confluence of excellence, it’s an amazing thing for athletes to do that, to hit that mental peak, that physical peak, that emotional peak, that confidence peak, and it all has to happen in such a fast period of time at the exact right moment. It’s really amazing to see it come to fore, and it’s amazing to see the joy that they experience when it happens.”

McLean, NCAA champion in the 500-yard freestyle as a UVa senior in 2011, will be part of the men’s 800 free relay team in London.

“There are no guarantees that any athlete will be participating in a relay,” Bernardino said, “but from my perspective, based upon Lauren’s finish [in Omaha] and based upon Matt’s finish and looking at the schedule of events that our USA athletes are swimming, I feel very confident that they’ll have an opportunity to swing in the preliminary heats. And then based upon performance in the preliminary heat of the relay, that will determine whether or not they advance as one of the final four at night.

“They each have what I believe will be a very, very great opportunity to swim, not only in the morning preliminaries, but, based upon performance, a chance to be on those relays at night. And I hope that knowing that will inspire them to have the best swims of their lives in the preliminary heats.”

Bernardino has been head coach at his alma mater since August 1978. The first great swimmer he coached at UVa? That would be Phil Perdue, an All-American in the 50 and 100 freestyle in 1980.

In fact, had the United States not boycotted the 1980 Olympics, which were held in Moscow, Phil Perdue might have preceded his daughter as an Olympian.

In Omaha, after seeing Lauren clinch a spot on the Olympic team, that “very much crossed my mind,” Bernardino said. “As soon as I saw her dad, I mentioned very briefly, ‘I know your dream didn’t come true, but better yet your daughter’s did,’ and he agreed 100 percent.”

A 17-time ACC champion, Lauren also is a 12-time All-American. She holds ACC (and school) records in the 100 and 200 freestyle and UVa’s record in the 50 free.

“She’s a whole other realm ahead of my ability level,” Phil Perdue said.

In February, Lauren helped the UVa women capture their fifth consecutive ACC title. Overall, though, she recalled, it “was a difficult year. I had make some hard decisions about which meets I would swim in and how I would compete for UVa as well as save my back a little.

“Ultimately, the decision was to do the best I could for UVa and compete in ACCs and help the team out there, and then ultimately my goal was to focus on Olympic Trials after that. The decision to get the surgery and forgo NCAAs was important for me.”

After the ACC meet, Bernardino said, “I didn’t really care about very much other than her health. I felt she had done and made many sacrifices for the good of the team.

“My major concern was that she have an opportunity to be pain-free. I knew at the time that it also would give her a little bit bigger window, an opportunity to train a little bit longer [for the Olympic Trials] than if we waited to have the surgery until after the NCAAs were over.”

Bernardino will be in London to cheer on his current and former swimmers. He can expect to see a lot of Perdue supporters there. Lauren’s cheering section will include her parents, Phil and Tammy; and her sister, Meredith, a former UVa swimmer who graduated this year. (Lauren and Meredith have a younger brother, Phillip, who’ll be swimming in the States during the Olympics.)

“We’ll have about seven people over there,” Phil Perdue said, “and we just can’t wait.”

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