CEDAR FALLS — Katie Taylor once tried to take a break from swimming, and she felt like a fish out of water.
The Missouri Valley Conference’s 2017 Freshman of the Year entered her senior year of high school burned out. While she grew up making national cuts and attending junior level club meets, the grind had briefly become too much.
“I had been swimming for 11 years, I’d given up so much of my life for the sport,” Taylor said. “I was just ready to be done. I took a two-week break going into my senior year and then I’m like, ‘Yep, I can’t give it up quite yet.’”
Taylor is a rare example of a student first, who happens to be continuing an athletic career at the NCAA Division I level. It was the University of Northern Iowa’s actuarial science program that initially brought the talented swimmer from Muskego, Wisconsin to Cedar Falls.
“UNI is one of the few schools in the Midwest that has actuarial science,” Taylor said. “They had a swim team. I thought, ‘Let’s take a look at it and we’ll just see, maybe.’ I fell in love with the coach and program.”
The UNI sophomore is part of a youthful core of Panther swimmers that will be on display at the Missouri Valley Conference meet Wednesday through Saturday inside the University of Iowa Natatorium.
Taylor is the defending conference champion in the 400 individual medley and 200 backstroke after setting league records during last year’s debut. She also finished runner-up in the 200 IM — where the top two swimmers broke the previous MVC record — and swam on a championship 400 medley relay that set a new league mark.
Nervous entering that initial conference meet, Taylor recalls the enthusiasm and atmosphere making the event special. One of her teammates, distance swimmer Jordan McCullough, actually tore her ACL cheering on a relay during last year’s meet before coming back and producing stronger times this season.
“I’ve been to a lot of swim meets before and never have I experienced the camaraderie and the cheering and team spirit,” Taylor said. “Having fans there and teammates really made me less nervous than I was coming into the meet.”
Taylor’s signature event, the 400 IM, features a combination of endurance and versatility. The race distance is twice as long as the longest IM Iowa offers at the high school level, but was something her demanding high school coach in Wisconsin pushed.
“It’s definitely the hardest event in swimming,” UNI’s first-year head coach Nick Lakin said. “You need to prepare for all four strokes and you need to have a distance background, too. She attacks every different aspect of it at different times during the week. She just really enjoys the process of trying to find those little ways to get better.”
Taylor joins fellow sophomore and defending 100 butterfly champion Crystal Florman as part of an exciting group of UNI underclassmen poised to help the program continue to take strides forward. They’ve been led by senior Molly Lembezeder, the 2016 and 2017 champion in the 50 and 100 freestyles, who holds the school’s sprinting records.
“Molly has had great success,” Taylor said. “It’s not just about how much success she has when she competes, but in practices and in the weight room. She’s just a leader all around which has really helped move the team in a positive direction.”
While defending champion Missouri State remains the MVC team favorite, Lakin says UNI will be competitive within the next wave of teams as the Panthers look to improve on last year’s third-place finish.
After former coach Doug Humphrey departed for South Dakota State, Taylor says Lakin — who was hired one week before school started — has done a good job of keeping the program trending in the right direction. The first-year coach uses more of a hands-on approach, walking around critiquing swimmers during workouts.
“We were all really sad to see Doug leave, but Nick has taken a new twist on things,” Taylor said. “He’s been working really hard and doing a great job.”