Florida’s Vanessa Pearl Builds on Emergence into the Elite

Vanessa Pearl competing at the U.S. national championships. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

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Florida’s Vanessa Pearl had high expectations going into her first collegiate postseason. Coming out of high school she was an A-Finalist at US Nationals in 2017 and a three-time SEC finalist as a freshman.

But the grind of training for the SEC Championships, then the NCAA Championships takes a toll on many freshmen.

Pearl didn’t make any A finals at NCAAs, which was a tough blow for the talented swimmer, but one that motivated her moving forward.

“I did not have the meet I hoped for at NCAAs. That was really hard for me. I think there were a couple different factors. After SECs I didn’t have the best training. Mentally it was so hard because the season is so long. I think I was tired and not prepared for a season that was so long because I had never done that in the past,” Pearl told Swimming World. “We came back home and came to the decision we weren’t going to do that again. It wasn’t too difficult to shift gears. Coming off of a bad swim, you want to change it right away. It is harder to be motivated after a good swim. That is something I am working on.”

Upperclassmen teammates like Sherridon Dressel helped with that motivation as well. Most swimmers have felt like they underachieved during points of their careers, something that Dressel discussed with Pearl as the Gators have risen to the No. 1 ranking.

“NCAAs is always a tough meet to go back-to-back after SECs. It is a big adjustment, especially for a freshman,” Dressel said. “I don’t think she had a bad NCAAs, she just expected more out of herself, which is completely understandable. There is always something you can learn from that.”

Pearl moved into the long-course season and had a stellar summer, capped by a national runner-up finish in the 200 IM at the 2019 Phillips 66 U.S. Swimming Championships in Palo Alto.

“It was my first drop in two years in the 200 breast. I felt relief after that. The 400 IM was definitely not where I wanted to be, but on the last day, the 200 IM, my teammate Kelly Fertel, swam so well in the B final and I got so excited by that.”


Vanessa Pearl finished in 2:12.48 to finished second behind Madisyn Cox in the 200 IM.

“It was definitely a confidence booster. I definitely believe that I can be on a podium at nationals or NCAAs. I should have last year, but some things got in the way,” Pearl said. “It is definitely exciting seeing where this all can go.”

That starts with this collegiate season. She is part of a core group that has the Gators ranked No. 1 for the first time in a decade.

“Last year, the whole setting changed. I had new coaches and a new atmosphere. It helped tremendously. But I took that and wanted to bounce back and wanted to prove I belonged here,” Pearl said. “My teammates really pushed me over the summer. I moved in the right direction this summer. I am really happy with those swims. I am really excited to see what these ladies can do at the end of the season.”

The Gators have come a long way since scoring zero points at the 2017 NCAAs.

“It is really exciting,” Pearl said. “To see this team grow and progress is really awesome. It is amazing, but it doesn’t really matter what the ranking is right now. It is an incentive to tell us we are on the right track.”

Pearl’s summer also puts her on the right track moving into an Olympic year.

“It definitely puts me in a good place,” she said. “Obviously, I would love to make the Olympic team. I don’t think a swimmer at this level wouldn’t want that. It is going to take more consistent training in and out of the pool. I just need to push myself as much as I can. Eating better and sleeping better.”

While many swimmers struggle with the balance of eating, weight training, and gaining muscle, the lanky Pearl has a slightly different struggle.


Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“It is definitely really important for fuel. I feel like I am on the flip-side. A lot of people gain a lot of weight, but for me it is about getting enough food in my body to handle training. I do want to gain the weight, just not in the wrong way. Every day I am thinking about it. I will finish a meal and my teammates want me to keep eating,” she said.

She has a similar body type to another breaststroker from Texas, Breeja Larson, who surged back into the sport’s elite in the past year with a more muscular physique.

“I grew up in Texas and grew up watching Breeja,“ Vanessa Pearl said. “We are built similar and bring the same strokes. They called me ‘Baby Breeja.’ It is really cool to see her get back in the swing of things because training for years and years is tough. I have raced against her since I was 12 years old. It was always nice to look up to somebody and now we are on the same playing field, which is awesome.“

Pearl has a big year ahead, aiming to make the A finals at NCAAs and challenge for an Olympic spot.

Her teammates think 2020 will be a huge year for Vanessa Pearl.

“She killed it this summer. Every race, she was on fire,” Dressel said. “She is an incredible athlete. I knew she was going to be a big part of our team. It is exciting to see someone that young doing things that big right off the bat. I can’t wait to see what she does this year.”

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