With Rich Family Tradition, Kelly Montesi Creating Her Own Legacy at Villanova

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With Rich Family Tradition, Kelly Montesi Creating Her Own Legacy at Villanova

For Villanova senior Kelly Montesi, swimming at an elite level seemed like a given from the day she decided to pursue the sport. 

Her maternal grandmother, Marie Corridon Mortell, led off the USA women’s 400 freestyle relay that won gold in a then-Olympic record at the 1948 Olympic Games in London. Other accolades from her glittering career include two Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championships and being the first woman to break the minute barrier in the 100-yard freestyle. 

Beyond Mortell, both of the Villanova senior’s parents had glittering careers in the NCAA. Her mom, Margaret, was a 12-time Division II All-American and part of the 1985 University of South Florida women’s swimming team that won the school’s first-ever national championship, while her dad, John, scored numerous All-America honors at Division III Tufts University. 

Her older brother Jack continued the legacy when he qualified for the 2020 NCAA Championships as a senior at a last chance meet at Purdue. Because the NCAA canceled the meet due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the former Notre Dame captain received All-American honors in the 100 and 200 back. 

Given the deep family history in the sport, when Montesi took up competitive swimming, expectations were high. She certainly lived up to the hype from the get-go, consistently being one of the best swimmers in Connecticut throughout her age-group years. A three-time state champion and two-time All-American, Montesi, like her older brother, had interest from numerous Power Five schools. 

She ultimately decided against going that route and committed to mid-major Villanova. She cited her Catholic faith and the team atmosphere as determining factors behind the decision. 

“I definitely wanted to go to a Catholic school, so that definitely helped with picking Villanova,” said Montesi. “And just through all the interactions with the coaching staff, they seem to really care about the student-athletes as people first before athletes,” she added. 

Entering Villanova with a 100-yard butterfly best time faster than the school record, in addition to her incredible versatility, Montesi came to the Southeastern Pennsylvania institution with the potential to etch her name in Wildcat history alongside the likes of Olympian Maddy Crippen and NCAA qualifiers Hayley Edwards and Rebecca Koch

Although her coaches and teammates harbored these expectations and goals, when the three-time Big East Swimmer of the Year started her Villanova journey, she never thought about school records or qualifying for NCAAs. Her only goal was to give her best for the team. 

“I just wanted to swim fast for the coaches and my teammates,” she said. 

Montesi had an impressive start to life as a Wildcat, helping the team to a 3-0 start to the season, notching two wins and multiple top-three finishes in the victories. Considering her early season performances, best times, and the 100 fly school record were on the cards heading into the Bruno Invite. She got off to a hot start with a two-second drop in the 200 IM to place fourth on day one. 

The next day would be a game-changer for the Stamford, Connecticut native. 

Given her versatility and the ability to swim unlimited events at midseason invitationals, Montesi had some tough decisions regarding her day two events. Her swimming the 100 fly was a given, but she was also state champion in the 100 back, making the event a second option. 

Additionally, she had an excellent 200 IM the day before, which put the 400IM into the conversation. As a result, she had to choose whether she would pursue a daunting triple or if she would drop one of the events. Based on her IM focus earlier in the season and her results from the previous day, she ultimately decided on forgoing the former. 

She qualified for finals in both events, sitting in fifth and second, respectively, after prelims. Her 400 IM heat swim (4:17.67) marked her second personal best of the meet, taking almost a second off her previous best set a year and a half earlier. 

Her prelim swim was only a taste of what was to come. 

Starting with the 400 IM, Montesi hoped to get the Wildcats’ second individual win of the meet. She did so emphatically, lighting up the Katherine Moran Coleman Aquatic Center with an eye-popping 4:10.22. She finished almost six seconds ahead of second-place finisher Regan Barney and demolished the pool record in the process. 

In total, Montesi shaved over eight seconds from her personal best. Most significant about her jaw-dropping swim is that it put her from not even having an NCAA B cut to giving her an excellent chance of qualifying for NCAAs as her time was faster than what it took to get an invite in every year prior. 

While Montesi knew she could have a good swim in the event, she surprised herself with how fast she went. 

“I’ll never forget that swim,” said Montesi. “I really think that was an out-of-body experience. Like I really had no clue I would be that fast,” she added. 

As a result of her performance, she dropped her pre-college pet event in favor of the 400 IM at the Big East Championships. 

“Coming into college, I definitely wanted to swim the 100 fly,” she recalled. “It just happened that the 400 IM went better (at mid-season), so that’s what I swam at Big East.” 

At her first Big East, she almost replicated her 400 IM to the tee, swimming a 4:10.25 to win her first individual conference title. 

As conference meets happened, it seemed as if her Bruno Invite swim would hold up for an NCAA invite. Unfortunately, she fell just outside the bubble and was named an alternate for the championships. 

While Montesi barely missed out on a maiden NCAA berth, her sensational freshman season gave her confidence in her ability to compete at an elite level. It also gave her the drive to reach the elite meet for the rest of her college career. 

“I remember wrapping up my freshman year and being like, ‘wow, I was that close, ’” she said. “And to be that close to something and not achieve it definitely made me want it [qualifying for NCAAs] more.” 

In her sophomore year, the nursing major set out in sole pursuit of trying to qualify for NCAAs but fell well short. 

She successfully defended her Big East title in the 400 IM, but was almost eight seconds slower than she swam the previous year and not even under the NCAA B cut. Given her performances as a freshman, Montesi was gutted about her swims. 

“I just put too much weight on it (earning an NCAA invite), and I lost sight of what really matters with swimming and having fun with the team and got too caught up in my own personal goals.” 

Not long after, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which gave Montesi what she described as a well-needed break from the sport. 

“I remember thinking, ‘wow, this is the most needed break I’ve ever had from the sport’. It definitely brought perspective on the sport for sure.” 

After a few months away from school and swimming, Montesi was fortunate enough to get back onto campus and in the pool in the fall but was unable to race as the Big East canceled all fall competitions. 

Amid rising coronavirus cases and some Big East schools unable to be on campus in the fall, the conference postponed the championship meet to April, following suit with many other mid-major conferences that did the same. 

However, the NCAA stayed firm on a mid-March championship, meaning the Big East meet would be after nationals. So, unless Montesi went to a last chance meet, she would not have a shot to qualify for the 2021 NCAA Championship. 

Given all that was going on in the world, she opted against doing so, putting all her effort toward helping the Villanova women’s team to its eighth straight conference title. 

Like so many other elite athletes at the time, Montesi was just happy she had the opportunity to compete. 

“I wasn’t even thinking about it (NCAAs), to be honest with you,” said Montesi. “I was just grateful for anything we had,” she added. 

Her renewed passion for swimming propelled her to a scintillating showing at the Big East Championships. The school record holder powered to a seven gold medal performance, with her swims landing her the Big East Women’s Most Outstanding Performer for the second time in her college career. Significantly, while it was not a best time, her winning time in the 400 IM would have qualified her for the 2021 NCAA Championships. 

Even though she did not get the opportunity to go to the meet, knowing that she had the ability to secure an invite to NCAAs gave her renewed confidence heading into her senior season. 

After leading Villanova to dominant victories over Big East rivals Connecticut and Georgetown, Montesi carried that momentum into the WVU Invitational, where she produced some scintillating performances. 

While her college years had been highlighted with her prowess in IM and fly, it was her backstroke swims that caught the eye in Morgantown. Her 200 back (1:54.95) was particularly impressive as she dropped over two seconds to become the first Wildcat woman to break 1:55. 

With her first individual school record, she was just a few tenths off what it had traditionally taken in previous years to qualify for NCAAs. 

Heading into her final Big East championships, Montesi knew she had an excellent shot of getting an NCAA invite in the 400 IM and 200 back. 

The former was up first, and while she dominated the field and won her fourth consecutive conference title in the event, she knew her 4:11.84 would fall just short of qualifying. 

That left the senior team captain with one final chance for qualification via the 200 back. Knowing it was her last opportunity to secure an invite, Montesi did not hold back in prelims but stopped the clock at 1:54.93, a tick faster than her school record swim from November, but it still left her a few tenths away from the traditional 36th-40th place cutline. 

Having nothing to lose in finals, Montesi attacked the race from the get-go, going out six-tenths faster in the first half of the race than she did in the morning. Despite exerting more energy into the opening 100, with the help of fans from every team cheering as they recognized what she could accomplish, she was able to bring her second 100 home over a second faster than what she was in prelims. 

She hit the pads in a 1:53.25, decimating her school record set just a few hours later, and almost certainly became the first Villanova swimmer to qualify for the NCAA championships since 2013. 

To top it off, she broke a nine-year-old Big East record set by Notre Dame’s Kelly Ryan. 

“It definitely felt pretty surreal,” recalled Montesi. “It was probably the first time that I had a very concrete goal and achieved it.” 

While the achievement in itself was spectacular, what makes it even more impressive is it was in an event she never really focused on for the majority of her college career. 

When she came to Villanova as a freshman, Big East record-holder Darby Goodwin was a senior at the time, meaning the Wildcats did not need her in the event. Once Goodwin graduated, Montesi got a crack at the event, and while she won at conference, her time was not as impressive as what she had been in the 200 fly the previous year. 

With Villanova’s two top flyers, Micaela Grassi and Tarryn Els graduating and the Wildcats bringing in two sub 2:00 backstrokers in Hannah Wasmuth and Audrey Pastorek, Montesi was back into the 200 fly. She produced a massive swim at the Big East championships in the event and was all set to swim the event again in her senior year, but with the NCAA giving all winter sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, the Wildcats were able to snag former Cal flyer Elizabeth Bailey from the transfer portal, giving Montesi another opportunity to have a go in the 200 back. 

“I always thought of myself as more of a 200 backstroker than a 200 butterflyer, but I was never really given a fair honest opportunity to swim it [until my senior year].”

When Montesi dives in the pool for the 200 IM prelims on Thursday, she will become the first person in her immediate family to compete at the  NCAA championships at the Division I level. 

She may not end her swimming career as an Olympian like her grandmother or a national champion like her mother and possibly not even an All-American like her brother and father. But with 24 Big East titles, a school record, and a conference record, three-time Big East Most Outstanding Swimmer Kelly Montesi has more than etched her own path and created a legacy for herself as one of the finest swimmers in Villanova and Big East history.

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Brendan Heller
10 months ago

Very strong swim family, but even better people. Thanks for sharing this story!