Virginia Cavaliers Dominate NCAA Women’s Championship By ‘Creating Fantastic Moments’ (VIDEO)

Virginia celebrating its national championship -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Virginia Cavaliers Dominate NCAA Women’s Championship By ‘Creating Fantastic Moments’

For the second season in a row, the University of Virginia Cavaliers are the NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Champions. Led by head coach Todd DeSorbo, Virginia finished with 551.5 points to beat second-place Texas by 145.5 points. Virginia was led by a duo of three-event winners: Kate Douglass won the 50 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 breaststroke, all in American-record times, while Alex Walsh set an American record in the 200 IM before adding wins in the 400 IM and 200 butterfly.

Additionally, Gretchen Walsh (Alex’s younger sister) won the 100 freestyle after finishing second in the 100 backstroke (breaking the previous American record in the process) and 50 freestyle, and the Cavaliers won four of the five relays and finished second in the fifth relay, the 800 freestyle relay. The Cavaliers team of Gretchen Walsh, Alexis Wenger, Alex Walsh and Douglass tied their own American and NCAA record in the 400 medley relay, and then the quartet of Douglass, Alex Walsh, Reilly Tiltmann and Gretchen Walsh concluded the meet by swimming the fastest time in history in the 400 freestyle relay.

“All week long, we’ve talked about moments and trying to create fantastic moments for the team and create a great environment for the team,” DeSorbo said. “They just shocked me. Coming off the ACC Championships, I didn’t necessarily know if they could exceed what they did there. Certainly, they were significantly better here. They just blow my mind. They are great athletes and great group of people. They create a bubble and don’t worry about what’s going on outside of it. They make this easy. They make my job really fun. And they’re why I’m sitting here. They’re the ones putting in the hard work.

“It’s really fulfilling for them and for me because I see what they go through every day. It’s a very hard sport. They put a lot of emotion, sweat tears and blood into it, so watching them accomplish what they have accomplished, to have them do it, I’m proud of them. They deserve it. They deserve every bit of what they’ve accomplished.”

The Longhorns finished second with 406 points. Stanford started the final day 19 points ahead of Texas and looked strong through Saturday’s swimming prelims, but Texas placed three platform divers into the championship final and then did enough in the 400 freestyle relay to hold on to second place. Texas pulled off the runnerup finish despite having only two top-two finishes in the entire meet, Erica Sullivan’s second-place effort in the 1650 freestyle and Anna Elendt’s runnerup placing in the 200 breaststroke.

Stanford, which saw Taylor Ruck win the national title in the 200 freestyle and Regan Smith earn a win in the 200 backstroke, finished third with 399.5 points, while Alabama scored 288 to edge out North Carolina State (279). Louisville (196.5), Michigan (184.5), Cal (180), Ohio State (165) and Tennessee (127) rounded out the top-10.

But the story, all week long, was Virginia, a team that has gone from nowhere near title contention in DeSorbo’s first NCAA Championships in 2018 to back-to-back championships in just four years.

“I think it’s pretty historic,” Alex Walsh said. “Four years ago, the Virginia women got ninth. The trend has just been exponential, and I don’t think any other team can say that they had the success that we have had.”

By the end of Thursday night, with only one-third of swimming events complete, the Cavaliers had already lapped the field, turning the final two days into a coronation. Virginia won six of the first eight swimming events — while placing second in the other two. That streak ended when no Virginia swimmer qualified for the championship final of the 200 free, but by the end of the meet, Virginia had 11 wins in 18 total swimming events (including relays). That was the fifth-most for one team at the NCAA Women’s Championships. And the remaining seven swimming events that the Cavaliers did not win, Virginia finished second place in four.

Let’s put that another way: UVA missed the top-two in a grand total of three swimming events. The 2021 Virginia title-winning team finished 137 points ahead of the competition, but this team exceeded that margin despite a surge of talent arriving to college swimming.

“That’s pretty shocking to me. Really because last year, on some level, was a down year. COVID, it just kind of slowed things down a little bit. It wasn’t quite as competitive, and we knew this year would be significantly more competitive,” DeSorbo said. “As fun as last year was, winning our first one, and after graduating Paige Madden and Caroline Gmelich and Kyla Valls, we felt like we had a team that was as good if not better, but you have to perform.”

Virginia dominated because Douglass and Alex Walsh returned from the Olympic debuts in Tokyo as stronger swimmers, as clutch performers, as winners. Each one went undefeated, and that’s with Douglass skipping two of her strongest events (200 IM and 100 free) and Walsh adding two new events to her program from last year’s championship. That’s because of Gretchen Walsh has made the leap from great high school sprinter to plain great sprinter since she arrived in Charlottesville seven months ago. That’s because the third Olympian on the team, Emma Weyant, placed top-three in the 500 free and 400 IM and because Wenger developed into one of the best sprint breaststrokers in college swimming.

And it’s also because of lesser-known swimmers making an instant impact — like Tiltmann. The freshman from Brookfield, Wisc., placed fifth in both backstroke events and ninth in the 200 freestyle while swimming central stage on the national level for the first time.

“Training with these girls every single day has been amazing and honestly has made me a better swimmer in general,” Tiltmann said. “I came into UVA thinking I could do great things, but as soon as I got here, I was like, ‘Wow, these girls around me are going to push me to be something I never thought I could be.’ It’s amazing to train with them. I love this team. I love being here.”

And even as they were basking in the glow of the national championship, the Virginia swimmers did not hesitate when asked about an encore. After all, the core of this team will be back next year minus Wenger. Maybe that’s something about the energy that surrounds this roster, the high-octane vibes that helped Virginia reach this level and helped these swimmers become some of the best in the world in the first place.

“I would say that we do have a lot of unfinished business,” Gretchen Walsh said. “We accomplished a lot of goals here, but we can always set the bar higher for ourselves. Every single day we’re getting better, so it’s just a matter of time before we do something else that’s history in the making.”

Even before next year, the Virginia swimmers know that they will need to peak again in just five weeks when the United States selects its team for this summer’s World Championships. For this moment, however, they walked out of the McAuley Aquatic Center in their white, soaking wet “Champions” t-shirts with the mission accomplished.

“We had to be as good as we were to be able to really make it so that it wasn’t a close meet. I think that the way we performed made that spread. To me, I think it was a really impressive performance by all the women on the team,” DeSorbo said. “They blew my mind.”

Final team scores:

  1. Virginia                        551.5   2. Texas                             406
  3. Stanford                        399.5   4. Alabama                           288
  5. NC State                          279   6. Louisville                      196.5
  7. Michigan                        184.5   8. California                        180
  9. Ohio St                           165  10. Tennessee                         127
 11. Indiana                           116  12. Kentucky                        115.5
 13. Florida                           115  14. UNC                               109
 15. Georgia                         104.5  16. Southern California               102
 17. Wisconsin                         100  18. Northwestern                       73
 19. Arizona                          52.5  20. Penn                             44.5
 21. Minnesota                          43  22. Miami (Florida)                  41.5
 23. Virginia Tech                      37  24. Duke                               36
 25. Missouri                           34  26. Arizona St                         29
 27. Rutgers                            18  28. Arkansas                           15
 29. Yale                             14.5  30. Purdue                             14
 31. South Carolina                      9  32. Lsu                                 8
 33. Notre Dame                          6  34. Wyoming                             4
 34. UCLA                                4  36. Florida Int'l                       3
 37. San Diego St                        2  37. Harvard                             2
 39. Texas A&M                           1
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