'There's no place like Auburn': Inside Erin Falconer's Auburn experience

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Right stroke. Left stroke. Flutter kick. Faster. Faster. Breathe, Erin. Exhale. Repeat.

You’re winning the SEC 200-meter freestyle final as cheers of encouragement fill the Athens, Georgia, poolside air. To your left, and inches behind, is Tennessee’s swimmer. To your right, and closing in, is Georgia’s. Twenty-five meters ahead is the wall … the finish line. Almost there. Kick harder. Stroke stronger.

You’re Erin Falconer and there isn’t any doubt. You’re going to win the SEC championship. You’re going to represent Auburn on the winner’s podium. You’ve known it all along …

Erin Falconer grew up a fun-loving girl in the north Chicago suburbs. She loved time with her friends and she loved time in the swimming pool. Her father, Tim Falconer, is a retired schoolteacher and champion triathlete—a “real, super-fit guy,” she calls him. Her mother, Eileen Falconer, is an administrative assistant for the City of Prospect Heights, Illinois.

Already a veteran competitive swimmer by the age of 9, Erin’s college fate was sealed. She was going to swim for Auburn, and that’s all there was to it.

Falconer came home from school one afternoon, finished her homework, then completed one more assignment on the family desktop computer. It wasn’t math, science or English. Instead, it was art. Erin happily wrote and designed a college scholarship offer for swimming—and to become a pastry chef because “your cooking is amazing”—from Auburn University.

“I’m the youngest of six swimmers in my family, and everybody in my family dreamt of swimming at Auburn,” Falconer explained. “We have family [aunt and uncle, Terri and John Noll] from Auburn and we visited a lot. I said I was going to swim at Auburn since I was 6 years old. It was my dream school.”

After all, the Tigers were on a run of men’s and women’s NCAA championships and was the nation’s premier college team. “I said, ‘I want to be like that,’” Falconer added.

People at Auburn care about you

Falconer quickly fell in love with the South’s genteel culture. People were different, nice. The pace of life was different than the upper Midwest, too. But what made the difference at Auburn was the people.

“The first time I toured campus and the business school, people invested in the relationship with me,” she said. “They talked to me and cared about me as a person. They wanted to teach me about Auburn and share their love for Auburn. That’s something that sets Auburn apart from other schools—people love this place.”

An accomplished high school and club swimmer, college scholarship offers rolled in ... from Texas, from Minnesota and from Auburn. Except this time, it was real. Perhaps her lifelong love for her dream school already sealed the deal. Perhaps continued recruiting from the swimming coaches showed how she could be a champion for this championship program. Or perhaps it was … an associate dean?

Former Harbert College of Business Associate Dean Norman Godwin, now assistant provost for academic effectiveness at Auburn University, helped sell the school’s Supply Chain Management program to Falconer.

“Going on my visits, I was open and I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue,” Falconer said. “The associate dean said supply chain management was a new major here and is one of the best in the country.”

After all, Harbert College’s Supply Chain Management program is ranked No. 3 nationally by Gartner, requires internships for all students and has a graduation employment rate that approaches 100 percent. “I thought that was really awesome and I said, ‘I’m going to do supply chain,” she said. “There are so many things you can do with supply chain—and it’s so dynamic. I never looked back.”

New girl in town

Falconer spent her senior year at Mundelein High School setting state records in the 200 freestyle, scoring multiple 800 freestyle junior national championships, and earned All-American status in the 100 and 200 freestyle. Then, there were the good-byes.

“Everybody toward the end of high school was like, ‘Oh, we’re going to this school, or that school,’ or, ‘we’re going all together,’” she said. They went to Illinois, Wisconsin and Northwestern. Erin was going to Auburn—more than 800 miles south.

“I was scared, for sure,” she recalls of the summer of 2015. “I remember showing up to campus and not knowing anybody. I felt vulnerable and had to make new friends. Putting yourself out there like that was very scary.” She admitted, however, this new, frightening experience seasoned her for professional life beyond college.

“Throughout my career as a swimmer, I learned how to make sacrifices,” she said. “I learned that sometimes you are going to have to miss out on things to be successful. I think that part made it easier being away from my friends at home because I knew what I wanted to accomplish in the pool and that was what I was going to get at Auburn versus being closer to home for friend reasons.”

How often did Falconer go home? Thanksgiving, Christmas “and maybe for a week in the summer.”

“It was a big adjustment, but I created this family at Auburn and they made it better and easier to adjust,” she said.

In four years as a key member of Auburn's women's swimming and diving team, Falconer was a four-time NCAA All-American and earned All-SEC freestyle honors in 2018-19.

Swimmers don’t just show up for meets, jump in the pool and race. Falconer woke each morning at 4:45 for grueling 5:30 a.m. practices, found time for a quick breakfast before 9 o’clock classes, took a short nap before afternoon practices, then studied. “Swimming is a sport where the training never stops,” she said. “I take maybe a week off all year. I don’t know how I did it.”

She’s glad she did.

“The lessons I learned in swimming can help me be a better employee for companies,” Falconer said. “I learned a lot about time management and hard work, staying humble and learning to ask for help when I need it. That will be useful in the workplace. Swimming is a sport that teaches you a lot about hard work. We train so much for one moment. Being a student-athlete here, I got the opportunity to have a set schedule and get the help I needed.”

Finish, Erin. Finish.

After earning a 3.44 cumulative GPA, Falconer received her degree in supply chain management in May and moved to New York City to work as an operations and compliance risk consultant at KPMG. Competitive swimming is over. Championships are over. Auburn remains with her, as it always was.

“Auburn has done so much for me,” she said. “On the swimming side, I accomplished way more than I dreamed. They taught me life lessons that I will cherish forever with great friendships and memories. On the school side, Auburn supplied me with everything I could hope for in a degree. I graduated on time with a job. That’s all I could hope for.”

Just like Falconer suspected upon arrival, Auburn’s people made the difference during her college experience.

“Professors care so much about their students and give us great opportunities to be successful in our classes and in the real world, and I feel the same about our coaches, they really invested in me and made me into a better person, swimmer and student,” she said. “When I visited other colleges, I never felt that way. There’s something about the people here that makes me love Auburn and will make me miss Auburn so much. I know for sure that you can’t get the people that Auburn has at other schools.”

Falconer considers herself as a great finisher, in the classroom or in the pool. “When I swam, I was always better at the end,” she said. “I always finished hard in the races and that can relate to my whole college experience. The last two years of college, I really made the most of it and took advantage of all of the opportunities that Auburn gave.

“There’s no place like Auburn. I’m going to miss it.”

The finish line, the wall and the women’s 200-meter SEC championship lies just 25 meters ahead. Rivals and fatigue are closing in. Cheers and splashes create a blended, underwater symphony that only a championship swimmer understands in the heat of a race. Finish, Erin. Finish. You’re going to win the SEC championship. You’re going to represent Auburn on that podium. You’ve known it all along … Erin Falconer, Auburn graduate. Erin Falconer, SEC champion.

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