Feature series: Catching up with... Jenel Lopez

Jenel Lopez helped set nine school records in her two seasons with the Falcons
Jenel Lopez helped set nine school records in her two seasons with the Falcons


By the time Jenel Lopez had competed in her final swim meet for Cerritos College in 2010, she was part of nine school records and was named the South Coast Conference Swimmer of the Year both seasons. Additionally, Lopez was named All-American six times in individual races, along with swimming on nine relay teams that earned All-American status, with the 15 serving as a school record for most All-American honors. In fact, three of her individual school records, and three of her relay records still stand for the Falcons.

Lopez still holds the school standard in the 50-yard freestyle (24.70), 100-yard freestyle (53.34) and 200-yard freestyle (1.55.24), while she swam a leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay (3:40.52), 800-yard freestyle relay (8:10.27) and 400-yard medley relay (4:07.85), whose times are still the best in Cerritos College history. In conference action, Lopez won six individual championships and was part of two relay championship teams. As a squad, the Falcons won their lone conference championship in her freshman season, while they placed second as a sophomore.

Lopez then moved on to Cal State East Bay, where her success continued. In both seasons for the Pioneers, Lopez was named the school's Female Athlete of the Year and is considered to be the greatest sprinter in their history.  She set their school records in the 50-yard, 100-yard, and 200-yard freestyle and led East Bay to a program-best second-place finish at the PCSC Championships and the school's first-ever trip to the NCAA Division II Championships in her junior season. Lopez was an honorable mention All-American for her finish in the 200-yard freestyle and also anchored the 200-yard freestyle relay team, which placed eighth in the nation.

In her senior campaign at Cal State East Bay, Lopez continued to break school records. At the Pacific Collegiate Swim and Dive Championships, Lopez led off the 800-yard freestyle relay with a top-10 200-yard split to help the Cal State East Bay swim team open the championships at Splash! La Mirada Regional Aquatic Center. Lopez helped the Pioneers set new program records in both the 800-yard freestyle and 200-yard medley relays. Additionally, in the 800-yard freestyle relay final, Lopez posted a 25.48 through the first 50 yards, the best 50-yard split among the 80 competitors. She continued to push through the second 50 yards and final 100 yards of her leg, while her time of 1:50.83 set a new lifetime best and a new program record, taking nearly three seconds off her record-setting time in the 200-yard freestyle from her junior championship time. In addition, the time fell well under the NCAA Championships "B" standard qualifying time and within seven-tenths of a second of the automatic qualifying standard of 1:50.21 for the 200-yard freestyle.

Lopez is currently in her second season as an assistant swimming coach at Biola University.

Below is a Q&A with Lopez:

After a high school career, where you had a great deal of success, you decided to attend Cerritos College. Were you recruited by any four-year schools and what led you to come to Cerritos?
I was very involved in club swimming and when I was 16, you can say that I was burnt out and took a break. I was unsure if I was going to continue swimming in the future. Although I was very successful during my younger years, I missed the important years of recruiting because of my break. I told my mom if I made Top 8 at CIF my senior year, I would go to community college and continue my career, and that is exactly what I did.

Jenel Lopez swimming in her specialty, freestyle In your freshman season, you set five individual school records and were part of five other relay team school records. What do you remember about those experiences?
I remember falling in love with swimming and competing again. I fell in love with the sport again not because of my own success but having my team behind me. Those individual records and relay records led to a conference championship and it is unforgettable.

That freshman season also saw you compete in three individual and four relay races at the state championships. How was swimming at the CIF Championships different than at the CCCAA State Championships?
To be honest, to me competing was competing. Every time I got up to race, I was never in my head about where I was. All I wanted to do was get to the wall as fast as I could. CIF and State were very similar because of the level of competition. To be able to compete with the best and race the best was always something I looked for forward to.

You didn't come to Cerritos to be a water polo player, but you played both seasons for the Falcons. What did (head coach) Sergio Macias say to you to convince you to play water polo?
I talked about being burnt out from swimming in my younger days. Sergio and (assistant water polo coach) Brenda Villa convinced me to try it out to stay in shape in the off-season. I couldn't say no and I'm glad I didn't. I had never played a contact sport, which I always wanted to do, and this was my in to do it. I had so much fun learning a whole different sport. I remember I rarely played my first year and every time I would get in and score, Brenda would get so excited and that just made it that much cooler. An Olympic water polo captain, excited for me?! I learned a lot from both of them during water polo season and I'm so thankful they pretty much forced me to play.
NOTE: In her 41 water polo games for the Falcons, Jenel scored 34 goals.

What did you enjoy the most about playing water polo? What did you enjoy the least?
I enjoyed that it was a contact sport and how competitive it was. The year before I started playing, Cerritos had won the state championship so I learned from very talented ladies on how to play the sport. There was nothing I didn't like. I loved the experience.

Lopez and a teammate celebrate after breaking a school record You followed up your freshman season in swimming by qualifying for the state championships in the same three events and four relay races. How did your sophomore season differ from your freshman season in terms of preparation and competition?
I was more prepared and disciplined with my training. I wasn't where I wanted to be at the end of season but that didn't stop me from continuing to train to prepare for the future. I got down to times I hadn't hit in a long time and to get my team relays to state again was a big accomplishment.

Was there motivation each week to try and break the records you set the previous season? Do you know how many times you set new school records by the time your Falcon career came to an end?
Not every week. The events I swim are sprints so just using each week and meet to prepare for the end of the season was how I prepared for conference and state. I didn't like anybody to beat me though so I wanted to try and win every race.
NOTE: In her two seasons, Jenel broke her own records seven times.

What are some of your best memories about being a student-athlete at Cerritos College?
My teammates. They were some of my best friends and I still keep communication with some of them. Being able to continue my career and have people that always were there to support me, including my coaches, made Cerritos College feel like home.

How did the college prepare you to advance to the four-year level?
I think it was a great transition to go to community college first to get that feel of being a student-athlete again at the college level because it prepared me to finish my Bachelor's at a Cal State.

After a short break, you transferred to Cal State East Bay. What was it about the school that made you decide to transfer there?
I was looking at different Division I and II schools but the recruiting process was great. Coach Ben Loorz, at the time, was great and the visit to Northern California was amazing. Being that it was a smaller school, small team, and a new coach was an easy transition for me to continue my swim career and my education.

Lopez swimming for Cal State East Bay You continued your record-breaking ways with the Pioneers and broke numerous records. How did swimming in an NCAA Championship compare to previous championship events you've competed in during your career?
NCAA was so different than any meet I ever went to. It was an amazing experience and I met people from all over the country. I talked about how competing was competing but this was a different level. I know once you make it there, you have to think I did everything I could to be here and now I'm here to just put my head down and race. It was my last year and last meet, so I was ready to go for it.

Did the coaches at Cal State East Bay try to talk you into player water polo?
No, when I was recruited, I was recruited for one sport. I never talked to the water polo coaches.

What did you do to train both during the season and in the off-season that helped you improve?
I got very serious about my swimming in season and off-season. Even during the summer after junior year, I made a decision to stay near school and train. I knew if I went home, my training wouldn't be the same so I needed to stay to keep myself accountable. Luckily, some teammates stayed and also my roommates, which made it fun.

While completing your degree you served as a Graduate Assistant at Concordia, Irvine. How did that come about and what did you end up earning your degree in?
I wanted to continue my coaching career and I thought coaching college would be a great experience while getting my Masters. Coaching there was a great experience and made me want to continue coaching college. I was there a year and completed my Masters and then found an assistant position at Biola University.

Lopez is an assistant swim coach at Biola University With swimming being considered an individual sport, how are you able to impart your skills into another swimmer to make them better?
I think it is important to remember that swimming is an individual sport, but at the same time, you can't do everything yourself. Especially at the collegiate level, you need your teammates, you need people to train with, and coaches to push you. I feel that all these things makes an athlete better in any sport.

Do you plan to continue in coaching - both at the collegiate level or club level - or is there a different long-term goal for you? How long have you been involved with BREA Aquatics?
Yes, I am looking to continue to coach both for a little while longer. I eventually want to career change and get more on the administrative side of athletics. But for now, coaching is what I want to continue. I love what I do and don't want to stop quite yet. I'm on my third year of collegiate coaching and I've been at BREA for seven years now.

You're very active in CrossFit. Have you entered any competitions, and if so, how did you do?
I joined CrossFit in Ontario about three years ago and it has been so fun to learn Olympic lifting and still compete with my community. I have met some of my best friends here and now I even coach at both our locations. I have only done local team competition, nothing too serious. But I love being able to continue to compete with my friends.

What are some other hobbies and interests that you have?
I love to try and stay as active as I can. I am always on the move between my two coaching jobs, so even relaxing with family and friends is what I love to do. My goal once this pandemic is over, is to travel more.