The days after Lauren Beaudreau's disappointing performance at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials last summer were some of the grimmest in her 15-year career.
After making the NCAA championships as a freshman and sophomore, she entered junior year on the heels of lackluster summer training. By the time she ended at the trials, fatigue and burnout had prevailed, leaving her convinced she had reached her swimming peak. In a meeting, coach Matt Barany delivered an ultimatum: consider retiring.
Now, eight months later, Beaudreau has ended a Richmond career for the ages, having undergone a remarkable turnaround that last summer seemed all but impossible. She walks away a decorated champion not just in the record books, but also in the eyes of her adoring fans and supportive teammates.
"I've never worked harder than I have this year," said Beaudreau, a senior and the team's co-captain. "I've matured, and ever since we came back from our [winter] training trip in Florida, I've had good practices."
Her dominance was nothing short of stunning at February's Atlantic 10 championship. She crushed five conference records, garnering seven medals -- six of them gold -- to again qualify for the NCAA championships.
And her unforgettable swims continued at last weekend's championships. She fell one spot short of making Friday's 400-yard IM final, an event she has competed in only a handful of times. On Thursday, she finished 21st in the 200 IM and 26th in Saturday's 200 breaststroke.
The 200 IM and 400 IM were both school records. Her 400 time of 4 minutes, 10.53 seconds eclipses even the Richmond men's school record.
She competed formidably at NCAAs against powerhouse swimming schools while serving as the A-10's lone representative, never once doubting her ability to swim alongside the titans. In one race, she lined up against a former teammate from her club team.
"I'm from a small mid-major college, and I'm just one person by myself against the big schools," she said before the championships. "But I know that I'm meant to be here."
But Beaudreau also knows what it's like to watch from the sidelines. She made the NCAA championships as a freshman and sophomore, but didn't qualify during her tumultuous junior season. Returning after a year's absence made the meet, especially during senior year, all the more meaningful, she said.
"She's a totally different person from last year," said Cara Smaniotto, a senior swimmer and Beaudreau's close friend. "I've seen her grow up and mature. She was a huge leader this year, and everyone looks up to her."
Beaudreau dived into each race without any time goals, but her performances in recent weeks suggested she was capable of swimming faster than she had ever thought possible. She focused instead on hitting splits and approaching each race with a strong attack, she said.
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"I used to have an idea of where I was for performance," Beaudreau said before the championships. "Now, I don't want to put limits on myself."
Her desire for perfection was insatiable. She emerged from the pool after her 200 IM frustrated, despite having shaved two seconds from her A-10 record: "I can go faster," she told her coach.
"It was good to get that race out of the way, just to know I can swim that fast," Beaudreau said the night after her 1 minute, 58.1 second school record.
"I love the idea of her dropping two seconds at this meet and still not being satisfied," Barany wrote in his NCAA championship blog on The Collegian Web site. "She has managed the fear and nerves well, yet we have a new emotion to wrangle now ... frustration."
At the championships, Beaudreau was faced with the psychological burden of competing alone for the first time all season, without the riotous cheers of her teammates, whom she credited deeply with helping her succeed this year. Her teammates peppered the blog with encouraging comments during the competition.
"My schedule at NCAAs revolves around me," she said, "And the way we function as a team at Richmond is so selfless and everybody is involved in other people's swims."
Beaudreau's transformation after last year's breakdown has certainly not been overlooked by her teammates, who noted that she had displayed a remarkable ability to lead by example.
"When she got back this year, everyone on the team who had seen her said, 'She's training at a higher level,'" Smaniotto said. "In December, she came to the training trip, and she just killed it. From then on, she was a totally different athlete. She swam out of her mind second semester."
In interviews, Beaudreau offered thoughtful and quiet introspection on a passion that began in earnest as a kindergartner in a four-lane community swimming pool a little more than a mile from her East Bay, Calif., home.
She was never supposed to be a champion swimmer. She stands more than a foot shorter than most of her competitors, a disadvantage in swimming when longer arms and legs allow an athlete to generate more power. That meant she had to work harder, she said, and it was her competitive spirit and relentless mental focus that made her a force in the pool.
"I don't know how I can explain the impact Lauren has had on our program," Barany wrote in the blog. "As her coach, I admit we haven't had a flawless relationship. I witnessed her battle illness, self-doubt, homesickness, fear, loneliness, distraction, fatigue, confusion and every emotion in between. We have spent a lot of time together. As her coach, I don't regret any of it. She has taught me volumes about swimming by just watching her."
Now retired, Beaudreau described her emotional struggles transitioning into life as another college student, all while eying a future that seems fraught with uncertainty and doesn't necessarily include swimming competitively -- if at all. She's considering taking up master's swimming eventually.
"Swimming is so much a part of my identity, I don't know what else I'm good at," she said. "I didn't have time to get involved with other student activities until now."
Spending less time around her teammates since season's end has proven especially difficult for Beaudreau. The team has continued practicing, albeit without its star swimmer.
For now, Beaudreau, a criminal justice major and first-generation student, plans return to her California hometown after graduation in May, intent upon reconnecting with her younger brother and parents, she said. She's now considering graduate school, but training at Richmond during summers has kept her away from home for much of the last four years, meaning she probably won't apply for another year.
Before her final race at the championships, tears were already streaming down her face. When she climbed out, breathless and exhausted, she could hardly control her sobs as she walked over to hug her coach. Beaudreau said she had no regrets about her career.
"I wanted it to turn out perfectly," she said, recalling her final race a few days after returning from Texas. "It's like any other thing that ends. It's good that it ended because I can go on to something else. But it's scary because it's so much of what I know."
Equally difficult is parting with Barany, her coach of four years who also isn't even the person who recruited her to come to Richmond. That was the previous coach, who left after Beaudreau had signed with Richmond, which almost kept her from coming here altogether.
"He's been like my parent for the last four years," Beaudreau said, tears welling in her eyes. "I'm with him four hours a day, and when you spend a lot of time with someone, it's hard."
Said Barany: "I am most proud of the model she has created for future generations of Richmond swimmers and Richmond athletes. She succeeded, failed, and succeeded again. She grew from an individual to a team player. She leaves the sport at her fastest."
Contact staff writer Dan Petty at email@example.com
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