Olivia Johnson & Lilly Byrne Fueled Tulane’s Most Successful Season With Inspiration From Coach Battling Cancer

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Olivia Johnson (left) and Lilly Byrne (right). Photo Courtesy: Tulane Athletics

Olivia Johnson and Lilly Byrne made history for the Tulane Women’s Swimming and Diving program by qualifying for NCAAs.

Entering the 2019-20 season, the Tulane women’s swimming and diving team had only ever qualified one swimmer to the NCAA Championships. By the conclusion of this year, the Green Wave had three. Senior Olivia Johnson and freshman Lilly Byrne had each qualified to NCAAs for the first time in their careers, marking a truly historic season for Tulane.

They were not able to physically swim at the championships because of COVID, but just qualifying for the meet was enough for them to put Tulane on the national stage.

“It was a really super cool moment and I’m really proud of Lilly and proud of where the team is going,” Olivia Johnson told Swimming World. “I think Leah (Stancil) and Kosuke (Kojima) are doing an amazing job of coaching that team. Leah is a planner and sees the big picture.

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Olivia Johnson. Photo Courtesy: Tulane Athletics

“As far as getting two swimmers to NCAAs, it was a huge moment for the program because it shows we are going in an upward direction. We have a pretty young team. With this next class coming in, more than half of the team will be underclassmen so it will be really cool to see them step up and shape the program.”

“It was a really special thing,” Lilly Byrne said. “I was not expecting to do that at all. I thought I might be close but it wouldn’t happen. But then it happened and I felt so blessed – it was really cool. It felt really huge for the team as a whole and that was the first time two had ever made it for our team.”

Tulane had only had one participant at NCAAs in the past – Mia Schachter, who was 32nd in the 100 breaststroke in 2015.

Johnson had qualified to swim in the 400 IM as she was seeded 21st with a 4:07.72, while Byrne had qualified in the 1650 by virtue of her 16:15.69. Byrne was one of the last people into the meet.

“It was kind of a waiting game to see if she would make it because she was right on the cusp,” Johnson said. “I always kind of knew she was going to make it with that time. It was really cool when the psych sheet finally came out because I was going to have a buddy with me there.”

Byrne was more than excited to have the opportunity to join Johnson at NCAAs, viewing the senior as one of her role models on the team. Watching her 400 IM at the AAC Championships was inspiring for her and the rest of the Green Wave.

“I watched her in the US Open and she made the B-Final and so being able to watch her do her thing and always be fast has always been a really big inspiration for me and especially the rest of the team and her training partners,” Byrne said. “That definitely was really cool. She just goes out there and does her thing and always gives 110% and that’s always been very inspiring to watch.”

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Lilly Byrne. Photo Courtesy: Tulane Athletics

Even though Byrne was one of 49 freshmen to make the championships individually, she did not believe she had a chance to make the meet this season, thinking it would eventually come later in her career. But it was all a part of the plan laid out in the beginning of the season by coaches Leah Stancil and Kosuke Kojima.

“My main goal was to get Olympic Trials cuts,” Byrne said. “I wasn’t really thinking about NCAAs but Kosuke and Leah were.

“The only reason I know that is because Kosuke came to my club team practice after I committed and was telling my coach, ‘we are not really concerned how she is going to place in the conference. We are mainly concerned about how she is going to place in the NCAA.’ My club coach told me that and I was like ‘What?! Really?! They think I can go there and place there?’ I knew that they had that as a thought and I thought maybe it could happen next year.”

Johnson’s qualification to the meet was long overdue. After missing the 2019 NCAA meet by less than a half second in the 400 IM, she was more motivated than ever to finish off her Tulane career at the national stage. Knowing it would take around a 4:10 to qualify for the meet, Johnson dipped under that in the prelims at the American Athletic Conference Championships with a 4:09.99. And in the final, she went off – blowing that time out of the water with a 4:07. Her reaction after – splashing the water while pointing at her team, was fueled by years of frustration of just missing the NCAA meet.

It was an even more special moment for Johnson and the Tulane team. Second year head coach Leah Stancil had spent the majority of this season battling breast cancer.

“Let me tell you, she handled it with grace,” Johnson said. “She is a fighter and another motivating factor for us as a team. When she wasn’t at practice we knew she was fighting her fight and that just motivated us to work harder for her.”

“She really inspired the team a lot from that because she was always there when she could be there,” Byrne said. “She was getting up at 5 a.m. with us. She would miss if she had treatment or if she couldn’t do it that day but she was always there as often as she could be. She really showed us her strength and I feel like she inspired us to be strong too and be strong for her.”

When Johnson and Byrne had made the NCAA meet, it was the end of a truly emotional season for the Green Wave. Getting two swimmers to NCAAs had never happened for Tulane before this year, but now that it has happened, it sets a new standard.

“We got two, so let’s try and get three or four,” Johnson said. “I think it is a motivating factor for the team.”

Both women attributed their success to Stancil’s strength she showed on deck whilst battling cancer.

“I was happy to help build her reputation as a coach and I know that everything this year was difficult for her and that was a pretty big part of it,” Byrne said.

“It was more difficult for us to watch this strong woman fight this difficult battle,” Johnson said. “She has taken it like a champ and really shown us strength and the power of faith. Overall she is a great, great woman.”

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Olivia Johnson & Lilly Byrne at the AAC Championships. Photo Courtesy: Ben Solomon / Tulane Athletics

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