“I surely didn’t think I’d be going to Trials in a week.”
“A year ago, I was really struggling.”
It’s hard not to be taken aback when those words come from Geena Freriks, a Kentucky record holder, Southeastern Conference medalist and All-American. The freshman standout detailed the struggles of coming to UK in the summer of 2015 and being hit with the reality of what training at the Division I collegiate level really means prior to her trip to Omaha, Neb., for the 2016 US Olympic Trials.
Freriks is a qualifier in the 100- and 400-meter freestyle, and will also be participating in time trials in the 50 and 200 free. The Norwalk, Ohio, native made her first Trials cuts in November of 2015 during the team’s mid-season tapered meet at the Ohio State Invitational. It was there that Freriks etched her name into Kentucky laurels with prodigious swims in both long course meters (LCM) and short course yards (SCY).
In the LCM portion that punched her ticket to Omaha, Freriks broke the UK record in the 100 free in 56.29 seconds and also notched a qualifying mark of 4:16.94 in the 400 free, while falling just under a second off the 200 free standard in 2:03.35. She also swam times in the SCY that stood as the fifth-fastest in UK history in the 100 free and the third-fastest in both the 200 and 500.
“It really took me by shock, honestly,” she admitted on getting her Olympic Trials cuts. “My mom always said, ‘you can make it to Olympic Trials,’ and I love to have goals, but I just didn’t think it was a goal of mine.”
Looking back on where she was a year ago, coming to Kentucky before the majority of her classmates in early June, Freriks noted a drastic transformation. “A year ago, I was drowning, pretty much, at practices,” she laughed. “It was really bad. But I mean, I’ve accomplished so much already and I’m so excited to get better.”
The rookie continued to improve throughout the year, stunning her coaches and teammates at the Southeastern Conference when she became the first Wildcat to make the championship final in the 200 free since Olympic gold medalist Rachel Komisarz did so in 1999. Freriks broke the UK record with a preliminary swim of 1:46.13 and surpassed expectations with a 1:44.98 to take bronze, the highest freshman swimming SEC finish in recent history.
Freriks’ bronze-medal swim and overall improvement came as a pleasant surprise, albeit not a completely unexpected one, to head coach Lars Jorgensen. “When Geena came here initially, there were a lot of things that I liked about her and her skill set that she brings,” he explained. “But I didn’t know that she was going to get third her freshman year, considering where she came from.”
Touching on her background does not only involve the fact that Freriks is relatively new to devoting her entire year to swimming, as she was a dual-sport athlete who also excelled in volleyball – It also deals with her transition from sprinting to mid-distance.
Throughout high school, Freriks specialized in the 50 and 100 free, events in which she still still showcases her talent at the collegiate level. She made Junior Nationals in the 50 free, but even as a high schooler saw that her skill set would best lend itself to longer distances.
“My senior year of high school, I was going to try the 200 at our state meet, but I stuck with what I had been doing the four years of high school. I’ve always loved the 500 freestyle, but I’ve never specialized in it.”
That focus shifted when she stepped foot on the Kentucky campus and went under Jorgensen’s tutelage. He outlined the coaching staff’s approach to incoming freshmen as maximizing a swimmer’s potential, saying, “what we try to do is whatever you can do best for the program, what we think your skill sets allow.”
It can be a leap of faith to go from one specialty to another, but the willingness and desire to make that transition has paid off immensely for Freriks. Though she still has the power to score in the 100 free, she has become a weapon for UK in the 200 and 500.
By the end of her freshman season, she was performing on the national stage as an individual qualifier in the 100, 200 and 500 free, and was a member of Kentucky’s record-breaking 800 free relay. She had the second-fastest swims of her career in the 200 and 500 free, and moved up the ranks of Kentucky’s all-time list with a personal-best 49.24 in the 100 free for the No. 2 swim in UK history.
So what’s next for the young talent after accomplishing so much in her first season?
She certainly looks to capitalize on the benefits of making swimming her primary sport. “I’m only doing one sport now, and I can just focus on this. It’s a lot more intense here. I’m a lot more focused. It’s a lot more competitive. So I think just having my focus on swimming, and my goals in swimming, just make it better,” she explained.
Jorgensen also sees the potential in his rookie star after being able to coach her for a full year, and believes that she can be a contender in 2020 because of her tremendous upside that still remains. He would be one to know what it takes to reach that level, having represented the United States in the XXIV Olympiad. It comes down to three simple yet key factors: “She’s worked really hard and she’s talented. She’s starting to believe in herself. And if you do those three things, you’re going to be pretty good.”
For now, Freriks has her first Olympic Trials to look forward to. Having exceeded her own goals in her first year at Kentucky, she has nothing to lose in the next stage of her competitive swimming career.
Her demeanor remained calm yet excited when talking about her goals for Omaha. “I want to have best times, obviously. I want to make it back in some events. So I’m just ready to swim fast.”
For the latest on the Kentucky swimming and diving program, follow @UKSwimDive on Twitter, on Facebook at Facebook.com/UKSwimDive, and on the web at ukathletics.com.
University of Kentucky
Media Relations Assistant