Versatile Lauren Poole excels athletically and academically

Published 5:47 pm Monday, April 17, 2023


Contributing columnist

Kentucky multiple All-American swimmer Lauren Poole is now in graduate school studying sports psychology who has never made a B in a class at UK.

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“I feel like every semester I had that one class where I would tell people this is where it (a grade other than an A) is coming,” said Poole. “In my mind, I always liked a paper or project more than an exam. When I have exams, I get pretty nervous.

“But I pride myself on being able to figure out how to get an A. In classes where I had to figure it out, I did. I know it really doesn’t matter that much in the long run if I got a B, but I have just always put in the work it took to get that A.”

Poole, who has a Bachelor’s Degree in sociology, was the NCAA Elite 90 award winner at the 2023 NCAA Championships. The Elite 90 Award is presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative GPA participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA’s 90 Championships. Eligible student-athletes are sophomores or above academically who have participated in a sport for at least two years with their school. All ties are broken by the number of credits completed and this year Poole was the overall winner.

Kentucky has now won the Elite 90 in women’s swimming four of the last seven years with Poole joining Danielle Galyer (2016, 2017) and Asia Said (2019)

“I knew I might have the opportunity to win it (Elite 90). I only knew about the award because girls on the team had won it before. I knew Asia pretty well,”  Poole said. “I knew how big the award was. I thought maybe things would work out in my favor but you never know. I didn’t bank on winning it but since I had graduated in three years, I was pretty sure I had an edge in the tiebreaker.”

Poole managed to graduate in three years because she was always “loading on credits” during summer term and took being a “student-athlete” seriously.

“As an athlete, you never want to fail a class and have to retake it,” she said. “As an athlete, you always want to do your best at every single thing you do. I used the same focus on academics. I love swimming but I knew I was not going to have a professional career and I was at UK to get an education.”

While Poole is an elite student, she’s also an elite swimmer. She’s a two-time first-team scholar All-American but was also a three-time NCAA qualifier. She finished third in the 400-meter individual medley at the 2021 NCAA Championships and won the SEC title in the same event that year to help the UK women win the SEC team title for the first time.

“One of the most amazing things about Lauren is she is good at every single stroke,” said former UK all-American teammate Riley Gaines. “Very few swimmers at the collegiate level are good at everything. You could put Lauren in any event and she would do well. She was definitely the most versatile swimmer on our team. She was SEC champion in the 400 IM as a sophomore and that’s unheard of.

“She really can do it all and her versatility has made her so important to the team. She has always had a lot of pressure on her because she could get thrown into any event. I’m just glad she won this award (Elite 90) because she excels in our sport and also in the classroom. She’s special.”

Poole said she considered the butterfly her best event when she was younger but then the backstroke became her best event. That led her to try the individual medley.

“I do not have one amazing stroke,” Poole said. “I am not the best on the team in any stroke. In college I really worked on my breaststroke. Then I noticed my butterfly was just okay and I worked more on it. It’s fun working on so many strokes.”

Poole qualified for the NCAA in three events — 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 butterfly — this season to verify Gaines’ belief about her versatility. The Crofton, Md., native has a unique determination that enabled her to compete in the SEC Championships her freshman year when she came down with mononucleosis just before the meet.

“The day we left for the meet I felt really tired. I was thinking  maybe it was a cold or strep (throat). I kept swimming so not to waste a SEC entry. I competed two days and then on our day off went to an urgent care center and got diagnosed with mono. My fever finally broke and I competed the last day. It was crazy,” Poole said.

“I was 24th in the 400 IM as a freshman but I knew I was better than that. Next year I got first (at the SEC Championships) but I am still proud I managed to help our team as a freshman when I was sick and then what we did my sophomore year was my all-time favorite athletic memory.”

Poole knows her competitive swimming career is over. She hopes to have an internship at a high school or UK as she works on her graduate program.

“I have swam for so long I am not sure what I will do now. A lot of people I know have got surprisingly bored when they quit swimming,” Poole said. “It’s almost like being in a daze because you are not in a normal routine. I have been on my phone more, watched more TV (since swim season ended in late March). It just feels weird, almost like I took a chill pill.”

She does admit she has a raccoon obsession even though she’s only actually seen a raccoon twice — and both times she was in a car.

“They are my favorite animal. They are so cute and innocent,” Poole said. “I would love to have one as a pet but that’s not legal in every state. My friends know I love raccoons and I have slowly got more and more decor, including some little stuffed raccoons in my room friends have given me that keep me company.”

UK signee impresses

During Media Day at the McDonald’s All-American Games, several players were asked which other player or players had impressed them the most during all-star practices leading up to the game.

Kentucky signee Aaron Bradshaw, a 7-1 player with interior and perimeter skills, got a lot of respect from Duke signees.

“I’d say Aaron Bradshaw. The guy is a 7-foot and he’s shooting it really well. I didn’t know he had that in him, said Duke signee Jared McCain.

“I feel like Aaron Bradshaw. I mean, I already knew how he played because I played AAU with him, but I feel like he keeps getting better. His shot is better and he’s better with his shot selection now,” Mackenzie Mgbako, another Duke signee, said.

Future Duke player Sean Stewart had never played against Bradshaw until the all-star event in Houston.

“He’s actually way bigger than I thought. He’s, like, seven feet and he shoots it really well. It’s been really cool playing with him,” Stewart said.

Kentucky signee Justin Edwards, considered the top player in the 2023 recruiting class by many, went a different route. He picked future UK teammate Reed Sheppard.

“He does a lot. He makes open shots and crisp passes,” Edwards said. “We recently played against them, too, in high school. I can tell you it’s hard to guard him.”

Hayes won’t back down

Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White challenged senior lineman Josaih Hayes to do more in the 2023 season and likes the way that Hayes did not back down from the challenge.

“I expect a guy that’s been in the program this long to be clean, to know their assignments, to know what to do, to play with great effort to strain every down. Like that is understood and quite frankly, Jo (Hayes) hadn’t done that,” White said.

“So there was a big challenge for him this offseason. He understood that and he has responded in spring in a way that’s exciting.

Hayes was a four-star prospect when he signed with UK in December of 2019 when almost everyone expected him to stay home and play for Ole Miss. He played in five games in 2020 and all 13 games in 2021 when the most guard had 14 tackles. However, last year he had just eight tackles in 11 games.

White wants Hayes to  understand just playing well in spring practice is not enough because that is not equal to a 12-game season.

Now, the 6-foot-3, 317-pounder who will sport No. 97 instead of No. 99, which he wore in his first three seasons at Kentucky, is being counted on to take a major step forward this fall.

“I want to see it from that guy the entire spring through summer, and he knows that and we’re gonna keep the pressure on him,” White said about the 6-3, 315-pound Hayes. “He has responded and he’s a guy that we need to be in there and a guy that we need to help us because he’s got size and twitch and experience.

“He just needs to keep pushing but proud of how he’s reacted.”

Kentucky lost 2022 starting nose guard to the transfer portal. Hayes is competing with Jamarius Jenkins and North Carolina State transfer Keeshawn Silver for the starting job next season.

Silver, who seems to have the edge at No. 1 now, said the competition is good for all of them.

“If he does good, I’m gonna try to do better than him and the guy behind me is gonna try to double what we both do. So you have to keep getting better,” Silver said.

Kentucky was 12th best in the nation in total defense last season but only 49th nationally in run defense.