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Sept. 24, 2012

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the record, fourth-year student Lauren Perdue does not walk around Grounds wearing her Olympic gold medal around her neck. She keeps her trophy in a safe place and takes it out of its box only when someone asks to see it.

“I don’t really flaunt it,” Perdue said recently at UVa’s Aquatic and Fitness Center.

The third member of her family to swim at the University for coach Mark Bernardino — first was her father, Phil, and then her sister, Meredith — Perdue says she’s still the same person she was before the Summer Olympics in London. It was an experience, though, that she’ll never forget.

Back in the United States, Perdue was among the U.S. Olympians and Paralympians whom President Obama and Michelle Obama honored at the White House in a Sept. 14 ceremony on the South Lawn.

“I’m still on cloud nine a little bit,” Perdue said. “It’s still a surreal experience bringing back a gold medal to Charlottesville and kind of being seen as a celebrity.”

Not since Paul Ereng did so about a quarter-century ago has an Olympic gold medalist returned to UVa to compete as a collegian. (Swimmer Ed Moses had college eligibility remaining when he turned pro after winning gold in 2000.) Ereng, a Kenyan, won the 800-meter run at the 1988 Summer Games.

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

For all those accomplishments, though, Perdue had a low profile outside of swimming circles. The Olympics changed that. In part because of a video that went viral — Perdue was among the U.S. swimmers who lip-synced and danced to “Call Me Maybe” — she jumped from about 250 followers on Twitter to more than 12,800. During the Olympics, Perdue tweeted a photo that showed her with LeBron James that attracted attention around the world, and she’s learned valuable lessons about the power of social media.

“I feel like I’m more perceptive of what I’m saying on Twitter, what I’m tweeting about, what I’m posting on Facebook,” Perdue said. “With all of those social media things that I use, I’m constantly thinking, `How does this portray me? How do I come across when I say this or that?’ “

In London, Perdue earned a gold medal Aug. 1 in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. She led off the U.S. relay in the preliminary that morning. A day earlier, former UVa swimmer Matt McLean had won gold as a member of the U.S. men’s 4×200-meter free relay. McLean, who’s back at UVa training and helping Bernardino as a volunteer assistant coach, also swam in the prelim of the relay to earn his medal.

Bernardino, head coach at his alma mater since 1978, was there to cheer on — and assist — both swimmers. From the time his red-eye flight touched down in London until he flew back to the United States, only two days passed. Bernardino was awake most of that time.

“It was a 49-hour blitz,” he said, “and probably the vast majority of those 49 hours were spent at the aquatic center. But it was one of the great thrills of my coaching career, to have USA Swimming credentials, to be on pool deck, to work with Matt and with Lauren, and then to have the opportunity to spend some time in the presence of all these great athletes, listening, learning, watching.

“I had coached five of them on the Pan American Games team in October of 2011, so I got to work with a couple of those athletes, and a couple of the other swimmers that I’ve known, whether it was in the warm-up pool and doing some pace work or some little technique things. But the best part of it was watching and listening and learning and absorbing the positive attitude that flowed through that team.”

In addition to Perdue and McLean, three other Olympians had direct ties to Bernadino’s program: freshman Yannick Kaeser (Switzerland) and former UVa stars David Karasek (Switzerland) and Katya Bachrouche (Lebanon). Moreover, Jim Bauman, sports psychologist for UVa athletics, was in London working with the U.S. swimming team, and Russell Mark, USA Swimming’s director of biomechanics, swam for Bernardino at UVa.

“So I spent a lot of time with those folks [in London],” Bernardino said, “and we had a blast.”

For Perdue, the gold medal capped a remarkable comeback from back surgery. On March 3, a surgeon removed from Perdue’s back a small piece of bone that had broken off a facet joint. For nearly a year, Perdue had been struggling with back pain that doctors tried, unsuccessfully, to treat without surgery.

With the Olympic Trials less than five months away, there was no guarantee Perdue would be healthy enough to compete for a spot on the U.S. team. Still, Bernardino said, “I never gave up hope. I had to wait and see how she progressed, but the most important thing I believed was, if you got a lane, you got a chance. The idea was just to try to gradually progress.

“She had a strong, strong background behind her, so I never feared that she didn’t have a significant amount of training background as part of her foundation. My biggest worry was how quickly would she get back in the pool.”

Perdue returned in time, and she earned a place on the U.S. team with a fourth-place finish in the 200 free June 28 at the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb.

Is another Olympic adventure in her future? Perdue isn’t sure. The 2016 Summer Games will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“I have thought about it,” Perdue said, “and I really am focusing on taking each year at a time, just seeing how my body’s feeling, how my back is feeling. Hopefully I’ll still have a love for the sport at that point. I am hoping that I can compete and make the 2016 team, but we’ll see.”

For now, this anthropology major from Greenville, N.C., is focused on her final season with the Wahoos. In 2011-12, UVa became the first school to sweep the ACC men’s and women’s swimming & diving titles five years in a row, and both programs figure to contend for conference championships again in 2012-13.

Virginia opens the season Oct. 26 against Navy in Charlottesville.

“I’m very excited for what we can do this year,” Perdue said. “We have an awesome group of freshman girls and a great returning group of second-years, third-years, fourth-years — just a really deep, solid women’s team. I’m really excited to see what we can do, and hopefully we can crack into the top eight at NCAA, if not better.”

As a sophomore, Perdue was NCAA runner-up in the 200 free. To her, she said, winning an NCAA individual title would be comparable to earning an Olympic gold medal.

“That has been a huge goal of mine ever since I started college swimming,” Perdue said.

Bernardino said he won’t coach Perdue any differently now that her résumé includes Olympic gold, “because there are still so many goals that she would still like to accomplish, so many opportunities in front of her, and this is also her final go-around at the NCAA championship level.

“So there’s a real sense of urgency in terms of my coaching her, and I hope there’s that same sense of urgency that she can go to the NCAA meet and compete at the absolute highest level.”

Other swimmers who are likely to be vying with Perdue for the 200 free championship at the NCAA meet include three of her fellow U.S. Olympians — Allison Schmitt, Megan Romano and Shannon Vreeland. All swim for Georgia. Schmitt won the 200-meter free in London, and Romano holds the U.S. record in the 200-yard free.

“Not to mention there’s some other really good athletes,” Bernardino said. “So it’s going to be fascinating to see how this thing plays out.”

At UVa, Perdue has been one of Bernardino’s top swimmers from the day she joined the program in 2009. She’s always been a good teammate, too, her coach said.

“I think one of the nicest things about Lauren is she has always been humble and gracious and a team player,” Bernardino said. “She is our team leader. She has been a good, strong leader all the way through in terms of her voice. I anticipate that her voice will be stronger. I think that she’ll be able to pass things on to younger swimmers that she’s experienced and seen first-hand. I think she’ll be a better leader than she’s ever been before, and that’s great.”

Meredith Perdue, who plans to go to dental school, graduated from UVa in the spring and is now back in Greenville. “It’s been really difficult, not having her there for the support that sisters bring,” Lauren said.

But Meredith and several other family members, including parents Phil and Tammy, were with Perdue in London during the swimming competition, and “it was really special sharing it with them,” Lauren said. “They were able to visit the Olympic Village while I was staying there, and I got to show them around, and that was really cool.”

So was the rest of her time in London. Perdue stayed through the Aug. 12 closing ceremonies and concentrated on fully enjoying what could turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for her.

“I’ve always wanted to go to London,” Perdue said, “so I got to do a lot of tours. I got to see Stonehenge, Oxford, Windsor Castle, the Tower of London, all of these places that I’ve always seen in pictures but have never been able to go see.”

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