Big Ten Senior Spotlight: Uula Auren of Northwestern University

The strength of the last two recruiting classes for the Northwestern Wildcats has primarily contributed to the team’s success in recent years, with freshmen and sophomores both comprising the majority of the team and the majority of the team’s points in dual meet competition. That being said, the Wildcats have had a great go-to breaststroker for a handful of years now thanks to Finnish import Uula Auren, and he will continue to lead the team in the sprint breasts in his final championship season.

Auren came to the Wildcats after having spent only one year in the United States, with Hamina, Finland being his original hometown. Despite having very limited experience in short course yards, Auren immediately rose to the top of Northwestern’s ranks in the breaststroke events, and he would post the team’s fastest times at that year’s conference championships.  At the 2012 Big Ten Championships, Auren swam to best times of 54.03 in prelims of the 100 breast (54.32 for 10th in finals) and 1:59.77 in the 200 breast (2:00.06 for 13th in finals) while also contributing legs to the Wildcats’ 200 medley relay (1:26.81, 5th) and 400 medley relay (3:13.27, 8th).

Unfortunately, Auren would undergo shoulder surgery during the offseason before his sophomore year, and this would greatly hamper his ability to compete for the first half of his sophomore year. After having only competed in two events before Winter Break, Auren still remained an instrumental part of the Wildcats’ charge in 2013, recording finishes of 24th in the 100 breast (55.83, 54.83 in prelims) and 32nd in the 200 breast (2:02.55).

Despite being slightly off in his individuals, Auren was particularly good in the medley relays, providing legs in the Wildcats’ 7th place finishing 200 medley relay (1:26.57) and 7th place finishing 400 medley relay (3:13.31). Notably, Auren was one of only three swimmers in the entire conference to post a sub 24 second breast split in the 200 medley relay with his 23.96 leg.

Uula would recover slightly during his junior year, and he assumed his usual role at the head of Northwestern’s breaststroke contingent for his third year of his NCAA career. At Northwestern’s own TYR Invitational mid-season meet, Auren teamed up with Mark FergusonAndrew Jovanovic, and Chase Stephens to establish new SPAC pool records of 3:13.10 in the 400 medley relay and 1:27.64 in the 200 medley relay. The records broke five-year-old and seven-year-old records respectively.

At the 2014 Big Ten Championships, Auren recorded finishes of 21st in the 100 breast (55.06, 54.37 in prelims), 33rd in the 200 breast (2:02.56), and he also added the 50 free to his schedule with a 54th place finish to boot (21.03). Furthermore, Auren added legs in the medley relays once more, helping the Wildcats take 9th in the 200 medley relay (1:27.15) and 9th in the 400 medley relay (3:14.14).

Outside of the pool, Auren has also accumulated Academic All-Big Ten honors during his sophomore and junior years.

Entering his final championship season with the Wildcats, Uula Auren will be one of the most exciting Wildcats to watch in Iowa City. Head coach Jarod Schroeder has utilized Auren in the sprint freestyle relays at multiple meets throughout the 2014-15 season to great success, and Auren was a crucial factor in Northwestern’s key win over Notre Dame in the second half of the team’s season. The addition of Israeli stud Almog Olshtein in the sprint freestyles this year also bodes very well for all relays that Auren will compete in, and this may prove to be the best chance yet for the Wildcats to send multiple relays to NCAAs as a result. Look for Auren to be a definitive leader for the Wildcats both on deck and in the pool, and it should surprise no one if the Wildcats move up a few places in the overall team standings thanks to his efforts.

Best Times (SCY/LCM):
50 Free: 20.93/24.56
100 Fly: 49.80/57.31
100 Breast: 54.03/1:04.43
200 Breast: 1:59.77/2:28.52

School Major/Degree: Political Science and International Studies
Favorite Event: 400 free relay
Favorite Hobby/Hidden Talent: I love playing ice hockey and tennis, and playing the drums is fun whenever I get the chance.
Favorite Movie: Django Unchained. I love Quentin Tarantino’s movies.
Role Model Growing Up/ Person You’d Like to Meet: My father has always been my role model – the way he stays calm in every situation has always impressed me. I think Albert Einstein would have been an interesting person to meet.
Favorite Food/ Pre-Race Meal: I love hotel breakfasts before meets. As for favorite food, there’s nothing like a good steak.

At what age did you become involved with swimming? How did you get into it?

I first hopped in the pool when I was just a couple years old. My family was living in Israel at the time, and the outdoor pools there made an ideal place to start swimming. I didn’t start swimming competitively until I was 12, though. My club’s head coach told me I should start adding more volume to my practices and start competing – that was really the start of my swimming career.

What is your favorite collegiate swimming memory and why?

That’s a hard question, as there are so many. The first swim that comes to mind is from a dual meet against Notre Dame my freshman year. Dominik Cubelic had a huge 200 backstroke and watching the race really pumped me up. I was in the following event, the 200 breaststroke. I had a great race, coming back by almost a body length on the last 50 yards and touching the other guy out. I used to be pretty bad in the event so it was pretty special to me.

Many international swimmers find the transition to a collegiate environment to be very tricky, with the difference between long course/short course being a primary obstacle and the language barrier that inherently exists also often posing problems along the way. Can you talk a little bit about how you handled your personal transition into the United States and into the NCAA?

I always liked short course, and we swim in short course meters quite a lot in Finland. That made the transition easy for me. I was pretty heavy too, so swimming in yards is always fun for me, as I can utilize my start and turns quite well. I think the light guys who are great in long course might have a bit more trouble adjusting. Luckily I am not one of those guys.

The language part was a bit tougher. Northwestern is a great school, and to start writing essays in a foreign language right away was not easy. I was having a great laugh just the other day reading my first essays from my freshman year. Luckily I got a lot of help from my teammates, who have been very supportive during all of my years here.

Although your breaststroke ability is well established at this point, you have increasingly been called upon to contribute in an event that is very rare for breaststrokes to compete in: the 4×100 freestyle relay. What are your thoughts on your inclusion in the sprint relays this year, and is the 4×100 freestyle relay an event you could see yourself being a part of at Big Tens?

To me, breaststroke is a very technique-focused stroke. At times, the more I try to go fast, the slower I go. Freestyle is much different. I can just let go and race people. For years I have challenged my freestyle-oriented friends at practice and at meets, and through that racing I’ve gotten faster every year. Now I’ve finally got to the level where I’ve been able to contribute in our relays, and I might even be on our Big Ten relay. It’s a fun event to be a part of so I hope to have my last Big Ten swim in that relay.

What/who do you think has been the single most important catalyst to your swimming career?

It’s hard to single out any individual factor. I’ve gotten help for my swimming career from so many people. My mother was always extremely supportive, driving me to swim meets and cheering me on. My coaches always invested a great deal of time and effort in me. And I always had a great group of friends around me in my teammates. So I guess it’s just a combination of those things that kept me going to the pool.

Do you have any plans/commitments following the completion of your collegiate career?

The first few months after my collegiate career I will just be relaxing, enjoying the last bits of my life in college. I have planned a very relaxed spring quarter schedule so I’m looking forward to that. The upcoming summer or fall I’m hoping to start working here in the States.

What should we look forward to from Northwestern as a whole at this year’s Big Ten Championships?

I think we have great team that is ready to make some noise at the Big Ten and NCAA level. We don’t only have great individuals like Almog Olshtein and Jordan Wilimovsky, but I think our relay teams and overall depth are the best they have been during my four years here. So I’m just excited to swim fast and be a part of a great team with lots of talent.

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About Varun Shivakumar

Varun Shivakumar hails from Hoffman Estates, IL and swam competitively for 16 years. He swam both backstroke events at Northwestern University, and ranks fifth in the school’s All-time performances list in the 200 yard backstroke. Representing NASA Wildcat Aquatics, he also competed in the 2012 Olympic Trials in Omaha, NE …

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