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Provo • In competitive college swimming, where hundredths of seconds can often mean the difference between first and last place, there is no such thing as making up for lost time.
Try telling that to BYU's Jake Taylor, who spent two years away from the sport as an LDS Church missionary in El Salvador and Belize.
Taylor, a junior who will represent BYU in the NCAA Division I Men's Swimming and Diving Championships in Iowa City, Iowa, later this week with freshman diver Nathan Gonzales, was not allowed to get in water in those Central America countries unless it was to perform a baptism.
"So that was quite a motivation [to find converts]," he said.
It took awhile, as could be expected from someone who didn't swim at all for two years, but Taylor has regained the pre-mission form he had when he tallied 28 first-place finishes for the Cougars as a freshman.
"Coming back was a lot harder than I really thought it would be," Taylor said. "Dropping weight, and getting the muscle mass back, and getting the muscle memory back, and trying to stay motivated, and doing well in school, that was all pretty much the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, up to this point."
Dedication to the sport started early for Taylor, however, and he was able to draw upon the work ethic he acquired while growing up as the only swimmer in a family of 10 children. When he was in high school, Taylor would make the early-morning trek daily across northern Utah's mountains from the family home in the tiny Box Elder County town of Honeyville to Mountain Crest High, in the Cache Valley.
After breaking every school and pool record at Mountain Crest, winning seven individual state championships, setting four state records and being named Utah Swimmer of the Year two times, Taylor picked BYU over offers from Indiana, Stanford and other schools and had a spectacular freshman season in Provo.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound public relations major figured his post-mission sophomore season would be difficult, and it was. He recorded a first-place finish in the 100 back against Utah and earned All-MPSF honors, but didn't come close to repeating the successes of his freshman season.
He sat down with coach John Brooks at the end of his sophomore season and plotted a way he could return to his 2010-11 form. He increased his speed through better underwater kicks and better turnovers, among other things.
"That went along with staying in shape and being focused and using every opportunity possible to swim fast and drop my times," Taylor said. "And so that has really been the biggest key as far as dropping times this season."
Taylor posted the fastest time in the country in the 200 back (1 minute, 40.51 seconds) at the time at the Texas Invitational in December, a mark that lasted about an hour and now ranks as the 11th-fastest of the season. He broke the BYU and MPSF record in the 100 back (45.53 seconds) in February, the sixth-fastest time in the country this season. He also earned All-MPSF honors in the 50 free and the 400 medley relay.
"Our goal is for Jake to finish in the top eight," Brooks said. "He wants to earn All-America honors [top eight] and we both feel confident that he can perform to that level."
Taylor said his ultimate goal is to qualify for the Olympics, but for now, a strong showing in Iowa City will be validation that he's every bit the swimmer he was before taking two years off.
"Dropping times off my personal bests and breaking these records were eye-openers for me and showed me possibilities for national and international meets," he said. "They showed me I can go and expand this talent that God has given me."
BYU swimmer Jake Taylor
• Honeyville native broke four state records and every school and pool record at Hyrum's Mountain Crest High
• Named Male Swimmer of the Meet at recent MPSF Championships
• Set BYU and MPSF records in the 100-yard backstroke (45.53 seconds)
• Set BYU record (1:40:51) in Texas and MPSF meet record (1:41:15) in the 200-yard backstroke
• Set BYU record (1:44:96) in the 200-yard IM in 2014