Virginia Dominates NCAA Women’s Championships, Wins Third Consecutive Team Title in ‘Mind-Blowing’ Fashion
When the University of Virginia won the school’s first-ever national title in women’s swimming two years ago, it was a moment of validation.
The Cavaliers had been on the verge of breaking through in 2020, only for the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to force the cancellation of the meet. In 2021, Paige Madden was the top swimmer in the country as she won three national titles while Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass, each racing at their first NCAAs before they blossomed into Olympic medalists, each won an individual national title.
By the following season, Madden had departed the college ranks, but a Virginia dynasty had started to take shape. Led by Douglass, Walsh and first-year Gretchen Walsh, Alex’s younger sister, Virginia swam the fastest time in history in all four sprint relays at the ACC and/or NCAA Championships. Douglass challenged preconceived notions about the limits of a swimmer’s range as she achieved NCAA titles in the 50 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 breaststroke, all in American-record time, while Alex Walsh was also a three-time winner in the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly. Her sister’s win in the 100 free made it seven individual titles — out of 13 individual races total.
How does a team follow that up? With a third consecutive title, as Virginia scored 541.5 points over the four days of competition, just 10 points fewer than in last year’s victory. Just like in 2022, Texas finished second with 414.5 points, 127 behind the Cavaliers, and Stanford was third at 333. Louisville (288) and NC State (263) rounded out the top five.
“I think everything is unique. You’ve got a different team, a different location. We have the same goals but different goals,” Virginia head coach Todd DeSorbo said about his team’s latest win. “Every time I think they can’t get better or individuals on the team can’t do anymore, they do better. They blow my mind. It’s wild how much they continue to improve and want to do really well for each other.”
On numerous occasions, DeSorbo described his team’s performances as “mind-blowing,” and that’s appropriate: title No. 3 was fueled a set of swims that can only be described as astounding.
As good as Douglass swam in 2022, her 2023 performance has been just historic, including three individual all-time records prior to arriving at NCAAs. Swimming the 200 IM at the national meet for the first time, Douglass dominated the field and swam a time of 1:48.37, the fastest time in history by 1.71 seconds. In a highly-anticipated 100 fly final against Maggie Mac Neil and Torri Huske, Douglass emerged victorious in 48.46, just five hundredths clear of Huske but four tenths faster than her previous record time. In the 200 breast, she swam the fastest time ever for the third time this season to complete the sweep of her individual races.
Meanwhile, Gretchen Walsh accomplished just as stunning a feat in the 100 backstroke, getting down to an incomprehensible time of 48.26 in a dominating performance against defending NCAA titlist Katharine Berkoff. One day later, she came up just five hundredths short of Simone Manuel’s five-year-old 100 freestyle record in another title-winning swim.
Gretchen’s older sister Alex did not have the record-breaking surge this time around, but she was faster than her winning times from last year in all her events, with a title in the 400 IM plus a second-place finish in the 200 fly and third in the 200 IM. There were other big moments, too, like Ella Nelson finishing second in the 400 IM and third in the 200 breast, or Aimee Canny, a freshman from South Africa, placing third in the 200 free. DeSorbo shouted out Maxine Parker, a junior transfer from Georgia, who dropped large chunks of time to qualify for A-finals in the 200 free and 100 free.
DeSorbo said that he believed his swimmers could pull off performances on the level of what they actually did this week, but capability does not necessarily equal execution to maximum potential on the day. This week, the country got a first-hand view of Douglass, Gretchen Walsh and others at their best.
“About a week ago, I was running Kate through an IM practice, and we didn’t do many because she doesn’t like to do them, and that’s why she doesn’t do much IM. She finished it, and I walked by the staff, and I was like, ‘She’s going to go 1:48.’ You have to go do it, right? I thought she can do that, but actually performing it is mind-blowing,” DeSorbo said.
“And same with Gretchen. I knew she could go 48. I didn’t know she could go that low of a 48, but when you see them do what they do every day in practice, you’re like, ‘OK, I know you can go that fast,’ but you have to put it together and actually execute really, really well.’ It’s mind-blowing to be able to actually execute it and put it together and do it, especially in the most high-pressured situation there is.”
Finally, for the first time since 2018, a team swept all five relays at NCAAs. The 800 free relay win on the opening night of competition was an upset over Stanford, and immediately after, Virginia became the instant favorite to win accomplish the collection of wins only attained three times previously in the history of the NCAA Women’s Championships.
On a few occasions during the meet, the Virginia swimmers seemed genuinely dumbfounded by the scale of their accomplishments. For instance, after the fourth of the relay wins Friday in the 400 medley, Alex Walsh was humbled to have her team compared to the Stanford group that won all five relays in 2018. But for the most part, it’s been business as usual on deck for the Cavaliers at the Allan Jones Aquatic Center in Knoxville, Tenn., even with victory looming.
“So cool,” Nelson said Friday night about the prospect of a third consecutive win. “After our first year, it was a terrible time with COVID taking it away from us. We were kind of the underdogs since we had never won it before my second year, and then last year, we had a big target on our back. It was a lot of pressure. This year, we have just been having so much fun. Obviously, it’s been showing in the pool that we haven’t let the pressure get to us, but we’ve just been having so much fun.”
Virginia is now the sixth women’s team to win the national championship in at least three consecutive seasons, joining Texas (five consecutive from 1984 to 1988), Stanford (five from 1992 to 1996), Georgia (three from 1991 to 2001), Auburn (three from 2002 to 2004) and the most recent Stanford team (three from 2017 to 2019).
“The university itself is a place that can attract and has always attracted very talented student-athletes in all Olympic sports,” DeSorbo said. “I knew that UVA was a place that was potentially capable of doing something like this, but I never in my wildest dreams would have thought that in three years we would win and then in another three years we’d have won three years in a row. The last six years could not be any better. There’s no way it could have gone any better for us.”
Full Team Scores:
Women - Team Rankings - Through Event 21 1. Virginia 541.5 2. Texas 414.5 3. Stanford 333 4. Louisville 288 5. NC State 263 6. Ohio St 223 7. Indiana 219 8. Tennessee 214 9. Florida 179 10. UNC 152 11. California 137 12. Southern California 125 13. Lsu 112 14. Alabama 111 15. Wisconsin 100 16. Georgia 90.5 17. Minnesota 53 18. Arizona 52 19. Kentucky 49 20. Virginia Tech 46 21. Duke 42 22. Miami (Fl) 36 23. Michigan 33 24. Purdue 32 25. Texas A&M 26 26. South Carolina 25 27. Arizona St 19 28. Northwestern 18 28. Arkansas 18 30. Auburn 14 31. Hawaii 11.5 32. Florida St 11 33. Miami (Ohio) 9 34. UCLA 8 35. Penn 7 36. Akron 5 36. Nevada 5 38. Florida Int'l 4 39. Georgia Tech 2 39. Utah 2