Virginia Swimmers Reflect on First NCAA Title: ‘We Have All Been Waiting For This’

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Photo Courtesy: NCAA Media

This is the moment the Virginia swimmers have been looking forward to for the past two years.

For the school and the ACC, the wait has been quite a bit longer.

Virginia’s youth movement has tipped the balance of power in swimming to the ACC for the first time as the Cavaliers are the first NCAA champions ever from the conference. It was expected to happen last year, but the pandemic forced a year delay.

“Having it taken away last year was pretty heartbreaking. At the same time, it fueled a fire in all of us and that is what led to our success this year. We had a point to prove, and I think we did that, which is exciting,” Virginia senior Paige Madden said.

The goal was clear all season and the Cavaliers did everything they could to make it happen.

“It is just such a great feeling. I feel like we have all been waiting for this to happen for a long time. We have made so many sacrifices this year and all worked so hard that we all deserve this. This meet started off with a great 800 freestyle relay and we just kind of kept it rolling,” sophomore Kate Douglass said. “We have so many fast swimmers on this team, it is an elite training group. We get to train with some of the best swimmers in the country every day. I don’t know if it has sunk in yet. It is crazy that we are the first ACC team to win a national title.”

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Paige Madden. Photo Courtesy: Luke Jamroz Photography

The dominance started with the 800 free relay win on opening night. It was a promising start, but only the beginning.

On Day 2, the Cavaliers made a statement as Madden won the 500 free, Alex Walsh won the 200 IM and Douglass won the 50 free in back to back to back finals.

Madden won the 200 free on Day 3 when the Cavaliers made their depth show, building a huge lead without winning any other event.

On the final night, Madden won the 1,650 free and the Cavaliers were runner-up in the 400 free relay. In the five relays, Virginia finished with one win and four runner-up finishes — not to mention All-American finishes from Walsh, Ella Nelson, Lexi Cuomo, Alexis Wenger, Caroline Gmelich, Reilly Tiltman and Abby Harter.

That is a lot of hardware.

“It is so sweet. I am really excited. I teared up on the last relay,” Madden said. “It was just really special having the entire team here with us. It is incredible and hasn’t hit me yet (fully), but it is amazing. We had to load the van and a lot of girls had trouble loading the trophies in our suitcases, so we had to load them in Panera bags. I really just wanted to have fun and this is the cherry on top.”

This is what Virginia hoped to accomplish last year before the pandemic shut down the season right before the NCAA Championships. It added some extra motivation for the Cavaliers, something that coach Todd DeSorbo saw all season from his swimmers.

GREENSBORO, NC - MARCH 19: Swimmers competes in the Women’s 100 Yard Butterfly on day three of the Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships held at the Greensboro Aquatic Center on March 19, 2021 in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo by Carlos Morales/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Kate Douglass. Photo Courtesy: Carlos Morales

“The women have been on a mission for two years, since the 2019 NCAAs, and since last year’s got canceled — they have been on a mission and they performed at a really high level all week. It is a really exciting time for our program and our conference,” DeSorbo said. “It has been a challenging year to say the least for everybody. I am in awe of our women and their discipline and their commitment to COVID-19 protocols and staying healthy on top of training at an elite level. I could not have asked for anything more. I am really at a loss for words at what they accomplished this year.”

It wasn’t just the stars or the relays. The Cavaliers put at least one swimmer in every individual swimming final.

“That was a personal goal as a coach that I had for the program that I did not share with the women until after Friday’s finals. Putting someone in the ‘A’ final in every single event is pretty impressive and it shows our overall depth. It takes a full team to win a national title and these ladies brought it every minute of every day,” DeSorbo said.

With Madden graduating, there will be a hole to fill, but Alex Walsh’s sister Gretchen will be on campus next year, with huge point-scoring ability, as will 400 IM summer national champ Emma Weyant.

“I get to train with Paige every day. I love it,” Walsh said. “They have great leadership and our seniors stayed this year and that meant the world to me. They are something that drew me to Virginia. This played a big factor with me coming here. I just wanted to be a part of this team because of the connection I had with them. Watching their momentum go from ninth at NCAAs to sixth, then last year seeded to win, then this year we win. That whole trend upward and going for the title was something I really wanted to be a part of. It makes the team bond extra strong.”

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Alex Walsh. Photo Courtesy: NCAA Media

The Cavaliers aren’t going anywhere. Next year could be the most anticipated showdown in history as the powerful Virginia budding dynasty will face a rebooted Stanford team that will include world record holder Regan Smith, NAG record holder Torri Huske, the top high school swimmer in the country, and the likely return of Canadian Olympian Taylor Ruck, who took this year, and last year, off as an Olympic redshirt.

That will be two of the youngest and most talented teams of all time getting after it where every hundredth of a second will have a chance to decide the entire national championship.

But that is something for next year’s team to think about. This year’s Virginia team overcame missing what was supposed to be their breakout year, then quickly proved they were the top team in the country.

It was the first championship in Virginia and ACC history … it won’t be the last.