"She was so embarrassed," Bulldog coach Jack Bauerle said.
When Conway finishes her collegiate career Saturday in Georgia's Gabrielsen Natatorium, she'll leave with at least three All-America awards and one team national championship. The No. 1 Lady Bulldogs are hosting the NCAA Championships beginning today and running the next three days, which will give Conway a chance to add three more All-America lines to her resume and another championship ring for her finger.
"She is, if not the, then certainly one of the two or three biggest success stories we've ever had at Georgia, taking into account where she came from and where she has ended up," Bauerle said, "and all of it is predicated on good old-fashioned hard work."
Conway will swim in the 1,650-yard freestyle, the 500-yard freestyle and 400-yard individual medley. The 1,650, which will hold its finals Saturday, is her strength.
"I told her, ‘I expect you to win it,'" said Lee Stockslager, a Macon dentist who coached Conway at Swim Macon. "Of course, she'll say, ‘What about (Five-time NCAA champion Flavia Rigamonti of SMU) or what about this girl?'"
Despite finishing fourth in the 1,500-meter freestyle at last year's World Championships, Conway still has a hard time thinking of herself as anything other than the person who drew hardly no collegiate interest coming out of high school and couldn't finish running those stadium steps four years ago. In fact, she speculated this week that she may not even have been accepted as a virtual walk-on at Georgia if not for the fact that Stockslager and Georgia distance coach Harvey Humphries are close friends. (Georgia paid for her books during her freshman season.)
"I really came in hoping I would be able to improve and contribute to the team," she said. "I never thought I would reach the level I'm at now. I kind of wanted to be a support for the rest of the team. In practices, I wanted to push the top people and be there emotionally."
Conway is now on full scholarship and a team co-captain.
"When Laura Conway signed at Georgia on a book scholarship, it didn't scare the heck out of anybody," Bauerle said, "but she has sent shockwaves since. She's come from a swimmer that hardly anybody noticed at the state championships to one of the best distance swimmers in the world."
Conway started swimming on a neighborhood team in Louisville, Ken., and then caught on with Stockslager after her family moved to Macon when she was 10. Since then, Stockslager has been trying to make her accept the fact she could get to the level she's on now.
"She's not the most talented swimmer I've ever coached," he said, "but she's been the most coachable swimmer I've ever coached."
The lack of interest other college programs showed in Conway was "a blessing for her, but it's also been a blessing for us," Bauerle said.
"She's just been great for this team," he said. "I'd like to tell you we were unbelievably great coaches, but we've got an unbelievably great kid."
NCAA events: 1,650-yard freestyle, 500-yard freestyle, 400-yard individual medley
High School: Central
Swim Club: Swim Macon
Conway's Quest: Conway will swim in three events at this week's NCAA Championships in Macon. Her strong suit is the 1,650-yard freestyle, for which the final is Saturday night. However, if things go well, she'll be swimming in finals tonight and Friday night as well. The 500-yard freestyle final is tonight, and the 400-yard individual medley final is Friday.
The Swimming Scene
Swim Macon, founded in 1981 by Macon dentist Lee Stockslager, currently has five athletes swimming on college teams, including All-American Laura Conway, who will swim with Georgia this week in the NCAA Championships. Heather Jones (Georgia Southern), Jos Smith (Florida), Tyler Smith (Miami of Ohio) and Katie Wright (Georgia Tech) also are Swim Macon products.