Virginia Focusing On Mental & Physical Health as Team Returns to Practice

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Virginia head coach Todd DeSorbo. Photo Courtesy: Sarah D. Davis/theACC.com

How Virginia is navigating a start to the college season in the uncertainties of a COVID-19 world.

As a new school year gets underway during a global pandemic, it seems harder than ever to imagine what a “normal” swimming and diving season will look like. For Virginia, which last year was the top seeded women’s team headed into the NCAA Championships before the meet got canceled a mere seven days before Day One, the focus is not on end of the season goals, but rather on how everyone is doing in the now.

“I feel like I’m a first year all over again because it has been so long since everyone has been together like that,” said Virginia senior Paige Madden, who is one of the top freestylers in the country. “It’s kind of new which is good, because I think a lot of problems people have as they get older, you get stale with the whole process. For me, it doesn’t feel like my last first practice ever, it feels like my first practice ever of this new era. It’s not necessarily the best era in terms of ‘we don’t know what is happening.’ It is definitely different, but we are trying to look at the good side of that and it is good to mix things up.”

Virginia was able to start up organized practices right after Labor Day, with COVID restrictions in place: two swimmers per lane plus coaches wearing masks at all times. The team has been able to stagger practices so not everyone is in the water at the same time, and although the team has not been together in the water since March, Virginia head coach Todd DeSorbo has noticed the athletes are in good shape.

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Virginia swimming and diving head coach Todd DeSorbo. Photo Courtesy: University of Virginia Athletics

“We have people on the team who didn’t miss a practice the last three months,” DeSorbo said. “Nobody has been doing doubles so nobody is where they would be in October or November but we do have a lot of people on the team that are better on September 1 than they have ever been.

“Normally we would go to Nationals in the summer and take a few weeks off and then get back going so everyone has had a three week vacation and has lost fitness and strength so we build them up. But this year we really tried to motivate, and suggest they don’t take the break in August because they had it in March, April and May, so if you can, just keep training through August. Many of them did, so maybe half the team if not more are probably better off than they were September 1 last year fitness wise.

“Not many of them were able to get into a weight room so strength and dryland have been hard, but swimming wise a lot of them are in good shape right now. There are some that didn’t have access to a pool at all and have hardly swum in the last five months. And we have people all in between so we are doing some things where teams are training together and doing the same things, but splitting them up by fitness levels as we go. Everybody might do the same set but there are different intervals and different focuses.”

“I feel pretty good because I have been touching water pretty much every day,” Madden said. “I would say if we were to do 2 two hour doubles in a day that I would be dying by the end but I definitely feel strong because that has been my main focus this summer. I feel stronger and able to harness those fast-twitch muscle fibers which I don’t have very many of but that’s what I’ve been trying to develop. In terms of aerobic capacity, it is probably not where it was in March.”

Navigating the Uncertainties

For Madden, being back in the water with her teammates has helped keep her motivated. She was able to find pool time in the summer at a local summer league pool in her hometown in Alabama, and was doing dryland circuits in her home. But the lack of accountability of coaches and teammates expecting you at practice at a specific time was hurting Madden as the summer wore on.

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Virginia swimming and diving senior Paige Madden. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“That was probably the hardest part, just getting motivated to train on your own and trying to get creative outside of the pool or inside the pool if you had access which luckily I did. That being said, it still wasn’t the same training with your core group.

“I would say it was good because it was a nice mental break and you weren’t swimming 4 or 5 hours a day and just grinding out. I think it allowed for a lot of time for recovery or just getting stronger outside the pool which was hard when there wasn’t a specific timeframe when you need to be somewhere.

“Instead you had to do it by yourself and for me, I would do it but it would take me a lot longer to do it because I was procrastinating. It was definitely different but I think it made me appreciate my teammates more.”

As the Virginia team reconvenes in Charlottesville, there is still no official schedule that has been released by the Atlantic Coast Conference for meets during the season. The Southeastern Conference has announced a conference-only schedule for the time being, with no official conference championships at the end of the year. With everything up in the air, and nothing concrete at the moment, the focus for the Virginia swimmers and coaches has been on mental health.

For Madden, a normal senior year would see her enjoying the typical life of a college student with activities such as football games, team outings, and going out to eat with friends. But instead her role on the team has changed.

“We are emphasizing that it is ok to acknowledge there are uncertainties and we are having conversations ‘what happens if the season doesn’t happen? Will you be OK with making the sacrifices?’

“I think the biggest thing right now is we have to sacrifice our social lives for the sake of the health of our teammates and the health of our community. We haven’t really had any discussions about ACCs or NCAAs, like what our goals are because we are trying to take things day by day, and right now we are more concerned with our physical and mental health.”

For DeSorbo, his role as head coach has changed drastically. With so many moving parts in the summer with trying to send workouts to his swimmers, as well as check in to see how they’re doing, on top of trying to formulate a plan to get his swimmers back to organized practices safely, he admits he had worked harder in the month of August this year than in the past 15 years of his professional career combined.

“None of us were on a pool deck until maybe June so it was three months of basically just being a communicator which we have to do all the time anyway,” DeSorbo said. “We had so many Zoom meetings and face time calls. The daily usage of my phone probably quadrupled for those three months.

“The role was significantly different; just trying to keep everybody connected and motivated, calming nerves, calming anxieties and stress. We were helping them find facilities and sending workouts. I was sending a daily workout to the team every single morning via email and it ended up getting pretty long because we had so many people in such different scenarios with different access to facilities and equipment.

“The email had a pool workout for normal pool, a cord workout for a backyard pool, a running workout, a dryland workout, a weight room workout, it was crazy.”

NCAAs – A Missed Opportunity

DeSorbo has been keeping his Virginia swimming and diving athletes in check since March, when the coronavirus caused shutdowns worldwide, canceling the NCAA Championships.

By mid-March when NCAAs were officially off, there was still uncertainty over the status of the Olympic Trials and therefore the Olympic Games. About a week after the women’s NCAA meet was supposed to occur, the Olympic Games officially got pushed back 12 months in an unprecedented decision.

“I feel for the kids more than anything,” DeSorbo said of the NCAA cancellation. “I don’t know if this is a defense mechanism but I move past things really quickly, whether it is fantastic or terrible. I move forward really quickly so for me even if we were to win NCAAs, I would have relished it and celebrated it but probably two days later, I would have said, ‘how do we win next year?’ That’s how I was: ‘how do I take care of these kids and prepare them for next year?’

“It wasn’t necessarily about swimming because at that point nobody was swimming so it was how do I support them and prepare them throughout the summer and throughout this difficult and challenging time? For me, I moved on really quickly and I don’t dwell on things.

“We have talked a little about it. We had a Zoom meeting where we needed to acknowledge it and the opportunity we lost, but what good will it do anybody to dwell on it and be mad about it? It was out of our control and we had to move on. We turned our attention towards, let’s put ourselves in a position to be able to do it again next year.”

“I think it was easier for those who had Olympic aspirations because at the time, NCAAs were cancelled but the Olympic Trials were still on so you had to adapt the mindset that they were going to happen,” Madden said. “It was really hard once NCAAs got cancelled and we talked with Todd like ‘you can take as much time off as you want. It would probably be good for you to take two weeks off and then start getting back in shape for Trials,’ so that was the mindset at the time to adapt. I think most of the people that were looking to do something at Trials did do that, until Trials itself got cancelled and it was another wave of disappointment but also relief.”

Virginia Swimming & Diving – A National Powerhouse

DeSorbo’s positivity has seemingly rubbed off on the Virginia swimming and diving team, as the Cavaliers continue to gather verbal commitments from some of the best high school swimmers, most notably gaining Alex Walsh and Emma Weyant for this fall.

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Virginia swimming and diving freshman Emma Weyant at the 2019 Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“I don’t necessarily know how all that happens or how all that unfolds,” DeSorbo said. “As a coach, my values are to work really hard and treat people well. If you treat people well and work really hard then things are going to happen. I always knew coming in when I took the job three years ago, I felt like Virginia was a place that should be like Cal Berkeley, Stanford type of program because of the academic reputation, and the prior history and tradition before me. I think the kids just got excited about it and I don’t think it was very hard for them to see that this is a place that could do those types of things.

“We do our best to try and make it fun, and swimming is not always fun and games. I don’t think people love swim practice like they love basketball or soccer practice. It’s hard! We do our best to make it fun and interesting and entertaining. The kids are just having a good time and having fun. It’s not all roses and candy but we do our best to make it as much of that as possible. If you’re having fun while you are working hard, then you’ll put more into it and you’ll get a lot more out of it.

“I think what our staff was selling to recruits early on – it got their attention, and there was a lot of interest and a lot of excitement and it just hasn’t died down. We are just going to keep doing what we are doing and our team is going to keep doing what they are doing but we will try to elevate it every year, and keep people excited and have a good time. As long as we are having a good time, I think everybody will be in a good place.

“The freshmen haven’t been here long enough to do a whole lot of adjusting at all so I think the great thing about the recruiting process being earlier now than it has been, is we can build a relationship with them for two years from when they commit and that really helps facilitate the transition once they get here. Because they know the expectation and what they’re getting into and they know the coaches really well and they have bonded with the team over two years.”

“We saw our freshmen class this past year just really come in and hit the ground running. Did they struggle? Yeah! I think every freshman struggles at some point and probably every other student, but I felt like they struggled a lot less than a historically traditional recruited class.

“I expect the same thing out of this class. Unfortunately for them we are living in a COVID world and that is going to make it even harder to adjust and to bond because this is so new and different for everybody that navigating this now is a huge challenge.”

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Jacimo

    Andy,
    Wondered when we might see more of your UVA coverage. It’s been a good couple of weeks since you gave them a gushing endorsement. Thanks for filling the need!

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