Ellie Taliaferro: Homegrown hero

Despite already etching her name in the swim program’s record books, sophomore Ellie Taliaferro’s story is defined by both success and community.
Ellie Taliaferro smiling for a picture before the 2023-24 season. (Photo Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Ellie Taliaferro smiling for a picture before the 2023-24 season. (Photo Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)
Vanderbilt Athletics

Ellie Taliaferro has gone from breaking local pool records in her hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. to decade-old marks at Vanderbilt. Born with a natural knack for athletics, Taliaferro succeeded in sports like gymnastics, cross country and track. But it was the sense of community she found in swimming that led her to focus her efforts on one sport.

“The swim families, they were just so awesome,” Taliaferro said. “We would go to dinner after every swim meet, I made so many good friends.”

In fact, through all the success that Taliaferro has had in her illustrious career, a common theme of loyalty and friendship persists. Taliaferro attended Chattanooga Girl’s Preparatory School, which she says helped shape strong relationships with women she looked up to. 

“School swim team was super fun,” Taliaferro said. “The club team was also super fun because my friends from school were part of that.”

At the club level, her success would take her to invitational meets across the southeast. For nearly a decade, Taliaferro was a regular at the highest levels of amateur competition. In 2013, Taliaferro made her first appearance in the Southeastern Champions meet in Alabama. There, she demonstrated her versatility by competing in seven different events, including the individual medley. Taliaferro remained dedicated to the sport, but with time, her friends began to lose interest.

“I think club swimming towards the end got harder because not a lot of people want to continue to do swim seriously,” Taliaferro said. “When I got to junior and senior year, some of my good friends didn’t want to come to practice anymore.”

Even with the added difficulty towards the end of her club career, Taliaferro still mustered a grand finale to cap off a storied chapter of her life. In February 2020, Taliaferro took gold in the 200 IM at the Southeastern Swimming Championships. A year later, Taliaferro swam in the NCSA Junior National Championships and finished with three top-20 finishes in the 100 free, 200 free and 200 IM. Then, in the final club meet of her career, Taliaferro took silver in the 200 IM at the SE NAC Southeastern Long Course Championships.

Finding Taliaferro’s name on heat sheets no doubt struck fear into the hearts of Tennessee high schoolers for years. As a freshman, Taliaferro already found herself on the podium at the state level, placing second in the 50-yard freestyle and fifth in the 100 free at the TISCA State Championships. During her sophomore year, Taliaferro improved to third in the 100 free while holding her place as second in the 50 free at the state meet. 

Taliaferro mixed it up her junior year and swam the 200 IM on top of her usual 100 free, taking third in both events. But in her senior year, Taliaferro finally stood atop the podium. That year, GPS brought home the gold in the 400 free relay and Taliaferro took home two individual silvers in the 100 free and 200 IM — setting a personal best of 49.90 seconds in the former.

Taliaferro’s exploits made her the third-ranked swimmer in Tennessee and a highly sought after recruit nationally. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Taliaferro’s recruiting was far from the established norm, consisting mostly of zoom calls. Eventually, in early 2021, Taliaferro announced her commitment to the University of North Carolina.

“I was supposed to go to North Carolina and I took my visit and I just didn’t really feel close with any of the girls on the swim team”, Taliaferro said. 

While contemplating her future, Taliaferro thought back to an unofficial visit she took to Vanderbilt. 

“Three girls gave me a tour, [and] even though I wasn’t taking an official visit, I felt more loved by them than I felt on a single official visit that I took to other places,” Taliaferro said.

The welcome Taliaferro felt on Vanderbilt’s campus urged her to flip her commitment. She had found the close-knit college swim community she was looking for in her home state of Tennessee, and just like the one she had in high school, the swim community Taliaferro found at Vanderbilt has helped her thrive.

Freshman phenom would be the only proper way to capture the immediate impact of Taliaferro’s arrival. In her first outing as a Commodore, Taliaferro took second in the 200 IM and fourth in the 100 free, leading the way for Vanderbilt in both events. By the end of her freshman year, Taliaferro had two CSCAA National Invitational Championship B Standard cuts under her belt and a new school record in the 200 free of 1:49.48.

As a student-athlete at Vanderbilt, Taliaferro has had to work just as hard behind the scenes as she does in the pool. The new workload has made the adjustment difficult. 

“I think that’s a really hard thing too about being a college athlete, you just have to say no a lot,” Taliaferro explained. “When I sit down with a piece of work, I really try and let that be the one time I see it.”

Ellie Taliaferro diving during a Vanderbilt swim meet during the 2023-24 season. (Photo Courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

Taliaferro’s time management techniques have evidently paid off, as her success in the pool has flowed through to her sophomore year. In the second dual meet of the fall season, the Commodores claimed a victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes. In the matchup, Taliaferro claimed second place in the 500 free to push her team closer to victory.

Vanderbilt’s record books have become a less interesting read as a consequence of Taliaferro’s success, with her name now being repeated four separate times. Taliaferro demonstrated her indispensability in Vanderbilt relays at the Gamecock Invitational in November 2023, when she helped break both the 400 free and 400 medley relay records.

Yet another record fell at Taliaferro’s hands during a tri-meet against Georgia and Florida State in January. With a time of 50.24 seconds, Taliaferro met the NIC B standard and broke a record that had stood for nearly a decade.

But beyond the records, Taliaferro remains a down-to-earth friend and daughter. In her free time, Taliaferro enjoys taking fitness classes back home in Chattanooga with her mom, making TikToks with her friends and watching movies. 

“I just love making little videos of me and all my friends,” Taliaferro said. “I love movies and cinematography and everything. I like to think that maybe in an alternate universe, I would go into cinematography school.”

As a competitor, Taliaferro has proven herself to be one of the brightest stars in Vanderbilt Swimming history. With her eyes now set on qualifying for the NCAA Division I Championships, Taliaferro is sure to impress in the final meets of the season, including the SEC Championships slated to take place from Feb. 20-24 at the James E. Martin Aquatics Center in Auburn, Alabama.

No doubt, Taliaferro would have found success on whatever path she followed, but she chose to go where she felt most comfortable. Her prioritization of community exemplifies what Vanderbilt looks for in its student-athletes. Dedication to her community coupled with academic and athletic excellence make her an exemplary Commodore.

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About the Contributor
Vincent Xu
Vincent Xu, Sports Copy Editor
Vincent Xu (‘27) is planning on majoring in economics with a minor in data science in the College of Arts and Science. Outside of The Hustler, Vincent enjoys playing sports, watching sports, talking sports and a couple of other things that are sadly unrelated to sports. He can be reached at [email protected].
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Mildred McGuire
2 months ago

Loved reading about your success! Bill and I are friends of your family. Have known Ricky for years.