Virginia Women Appear Invincible After Thorough Supremacy at ACC Championships

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Kate Douglass (left) and Alex Walsh each won three titles at the ACC Championships -- Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Virginia Women Appear Invincible After Thorough Supremacy at ACC Championships

Don’t compare the University of Virginia women’s swim team to other squads. A more apt similarity is a boulder rolling down a steep hill. Head coach Todd DeSorbo’s program built momentum in 2020, entering March as favorites for the national title behind freestyler Paige Madden and versatile first-year Kate Douglass, although that NCAA Championships was cancelled at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cavalier boulder picked up speed over the next two seasons as the team produced runway title-winning performances at the national meet, with Madden, Douglass, Alex Walsh and Gretchen Walsh all becoming individual NCAA titlists.

Last week, Greensboro, N.C., was the site of one of the most dominant conference championship performances in recent memory, with wins in nine out of 13 individual events plus all five relays. Two of those individual events and four relays resulted in the fastest times in history. More momentum for the consensus No. 1 team in the nation.

The potential of this Virginia team was never in doubt, and neither was the Cavaliers’ championship pedigree; indeed, few followers of college swimming would call the results of the ACC Championships a surprise. If anything, these results were an unequivocal reminder that neither a Stanford team featuring sprint stars Torri Huske and Claire Curzan and a Texas team with likely NCAA A-finalists in almost every event have any realistic hopes of winning a national title next month.

Eleven months after Douglass won NCAA titles in three different strokes, all in American-record time, she claimed the fastest time in history in the 100 butterfly for good measure, and she swam the fastest 100 fly split ever on Virginia’s record-breaking 400 medley relay. Gretchen Walsh took another step forward by breaking Douglass’ record in the 50 free. Her older sister Alex, a three-time champion at last year’s NCAA Championships and the world champion in the 200-meter IM, did not break any individual records but still produced three individual wins, despite racing none of her events from the NCAA Championships.

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Gretchen Walsh swam the fastest time in history in the 50 freestyle at the ACC Championships — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It’s the versatility and depth of this year’s Cavaliers team that is so remarkable. The top breaststroker for Virginia the last few seasons, Alexis Wenger, has graduated, so Alex Walsh successfully handled that stroke on both medley relays. Before Virginia broke the U.S. Open and NCAA records in the longer medley relay, it was clear that Douglass and both Walsh sisters would be part of the effort, but an argument could have been made for six different swimmers to occupy the fourth spot, and given the multi-stroke abilities of Virginia’s big three, DeSorbo and his staff would have been justified using about eight different relay orders.

Lexi Cuomo, now a senior, remains a valuable contributor for Virginia on several sprint relays, and Ella NelsonReilly TiltmannAnna Keating and Maddie Donahoe are all returning top-eight finishers from last year. Nelson, in particular, was impressive at ACCs as she joined the sub-4:00 club in the 400 IM, and she will likely enter NCAAs as the top seed in the race. As for new additions, Aimee Canny looks like a difference-maker in the 200 free, with her time of 1:42.62 ranking second in the country behind Alex Walsh. Fellow first-years Claire TuggleCarly Novelline and Emma Weber could all find their way into scoring individually at the NCAA Championships.

As for the stars of the roster, Douglass swam the country’s fastest time in the 100 free, becoming the fourth woman ever under 46 seconds, and then stated her intention to skip the event at the national meet — which makes sense, since the 100 free comes immediately before the 200 breast, an event where Douglass has twice broken the American record this season. She will surely race the 100 fly, one of the most anticipated races of the meet as she will clash with 100-meter fly world champion Huske and Olympic gold medalist Maggie Mac Neil, but will she aim for a third consecutive national title in the 50 free or instead opt for the 200 IM? At ACCs, Douglass missed the American record in the event by just eight hundredths.

It would be surprising if Gretchen Walsh does not go for the 50 free, 100 back and 100 free at the NCAA meet, but Alex’s program is a bigger question. The most obvious outcome is a return to the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly (the same program as she raced in 2022), but if she dropped the IMs and focused on the 200 and 500 free, she would probably enter as a slight title favorite in both.

All this is to say that Virginia will score a lot of points at next month’s NCAA Championships in Knoxville, Tenn., with a repeat of last season’s seven individual wins and four relay titles well within reach. And frankly, even with Douglass set to finish her college career after this season, the Cavaliers have the pieces to the 2023-24 season as favorites to win yet another title.

It’s that boulder reaching such a velocity that even as the last cornerstone members of the initial national-title team finish their college careers, no team is getting any closer to Virginia.

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