As senior Lilly King hugged freshman Noelle Peplowski on the pool deck in Austin, Texas, a new era for IU began.
“You don’t replace Lilly King,” IU Head Coach Ray Looze said. “Irreplaceable type person. That’s a once in a generation, maybe once in a coaching lifetime.”
King patted Peplowski on the back as the two walked across the pool deck ahead of the NCAA championship race of the 200-yard breaststroke, the final race of King’s career. When the two got out of the pool after the race, Peplowski was the first person that King hugged.
Replacing King is impossible. Though the strength of IU's team was not just King leading the way, but the depth and talent of the breaststroke group.
After just one year in the program, Peplowski has emerged as the best of the returning breaststrokers.
She'll become one of the leaders of the breaststrokers, as a sophomore.
Peplowski became the first IU freshman to swim in a NCAA championship race since King. Being in that race far exceeded the goals Peplowski set for herself coming into the season.
“I personally want to just make an impact,” Peplowski said. “I wanted to be able to score at Big Tens in all my events if I could and make NCs and try to be a part of the relay culture. Some specific individual times too.”
Right from the beginning of the year, Peplowski was an impressive member of the IU breaststroke group.
Peplowski was on multiple winning relay teams in dual meets, and was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the week of Nov. 21. At the Indiana Invitational, Peplowski swam the 100 breaststroke in 59.18 seconds, which is still one of the 15 fastest times in the nation this season for the event.
She would do more than just score at the Big Ten championships as well. Peplowski won bronze in the 200-yard breaststroke and she was also in the championship heat for the 100-yard breaststroke.
Peplowski didn’t make the NCAA finals for the 100-yard breaststroke. The next day in the 200-yard breaststroke, Peplowski beat out swimmers seeded ahead of her as she won her preliminary heat, posting a fast enough time to be in the top eight, qualifying her for the championship heat.
King has served a mentor all season, and even as she was preparing for her final college race, she coached Peplowski through being in a championship final.
“She’s had so much experience so she just kept telling me, ‘Have fun, we can do this,’” Peplowski said. “We’ve done so much stuff in practice that it was just like another breast basically."
Peplowski would finish sixth in the race, posting a season and personal-best time of 2:06.94. It was also her first time touching the wall in under 2:07. She beat swimmers like Anna Belousova of Texas A&M University who had the third fastest time in the nation coming into the NCAA championships.
“Noelle is really, really good,” Looze said. "Noelle’s going to be one of the leaders next year for sure.”
As a rising sophomore, Peplowski is going to be one of the leaders of the breaststroke group as it moves on from the King era.
“I think I could develop into more of a leadership role,” Peplowski said. “Even just being a sophomore next year, I’ve had a little bit of experience now. I’ve learned so much from the older girls that hopefully I can pass that down to the freshmen coming in next year.”
The IU breaststroke group will be led by its talented youth, and that’s not just Peplowski. Yorktown High School senior and Indiana state champion Emily Weiss will join the team next season. Weiss set the national high school record in the 100-yard breaststroke, swimming faster than King ever did in high school. At the Phillips 66 U.S. Nationals in 2018, Weiss swam in the same A final in the 100-yard breaststroke.
“It’s pretty nice to know that the IU breaststroke group’s going to be in good hands next year,” King said. “She’s going to keep rapidly improving. Watch out for Noelle. I’m telling you she’s something special.”