Todd DeSorbo envisions Virginia swimming as “a household name.” He pictures kids at youth meets wearing UVA sweatshirts and aspiring to compete for UVA, regard these days often reserved for programs such as Stanford, Cal-Berkeley and Texas.
The past four-plus months moved the Cavaliers exponentially closer to their coach’s goal.
And with three Olympic medalists leading a gifted women’s roster in 2021-22, Virginia isn’t close to done.
UVA’s ascension reached new heights in March, when its women’s team lapped the field at the NCAA championships, winning the first national title by an ACC swimming program. The U.S. Olympic trials and subsequent Tokyo Games compounded that momentum.
Three cornerstones of the championship run — Paige Madden, Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass — made Team USA, as did incoming freshman Emma Weyant. Moreover, DeSorbo was selected as an assistant coach.
These five Olympic rookies then set off on a five-week journey, to Hawaii for team training and Tokyo for their sport’s grandest stage.
“I don’t think that the summer as a whole, including the Olympic trials as well as the Olympics, really could have gone any better for any of these four,” DeSorbo said Wednesday during a group Zoom. “ … I’m in awe.”
Hard to blame him. Douglass, Madden, Walsh and Weyant peaked at the trials in Omaha and again in Tokyo, each earning Olympic medals.
“I cried,” DeSorbo said. “I cried a lot. Just put it that way.”
His Tokyo tears started when Weyant finished second in the 400-meter individual medley. The silver medal validated a collaborative but difficult decision that separated her from the UVA program for most of 2020-21.
A centerpiece of DeSorbo’s 2020 recruiting class, Weyant arrived in Charlottesville last summer. But pandemic concerns led her to redshirt, return home to Florida, take online classes and train with her personal coach, Brent Arckey.
Two days after Weyant’s swim, Walsh and Douglass placed second and third, respectively, in the 200 IM, the first time two Americans had graced the podium in that event since 1984. Then it was Madden’s turn.
Madden punctuated her college career with three individual victories and one relay title at the NCAA meet. In Tokyo, she swam the second leg of a historic 4x200 freestyle relay.
Edging heavily favored Australia for second, the U.S. finished only behind China as all three teams bested the previous world record.
“I was pretty certain that the Aussies were going to break the world record,” Madden said. “I think everybody else was [too] and thought the Aussies have it in the bag. … I never would have imagined that all three teams would go under the world record, much less my team.”
Madden, Douglass, Weyant and Walsh all mentioned the encouragement and motivation they derived in Tokyo not only from DeSorbo but also one another. Indeed, with their families back in the States due to Japan’s COVID restrictions, that UVA family support was paramount.
“I couldn’t be happier with how we all performed,” Walsh said. “… Given the circumstances we had to go through this past year, I think it was a really good way to end our season.”
The physical and mental fatigue from that prolonged season was evident Wednesday. Even with jet lag behind them — Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone — the athletes looked, and sounded, tired.
Since the Games, they’ve been decompressing, reflecting and reuniting with family. Moreover, Douglass, Walsh and Weyant are exploring how to take advantage of new NCAA rules that allow college athletes to monetize their names, images and likenesses.
The NCAA already permits athletes to accept U.S. Olympic Paralympic Committee prize money — $37,500 for a gold medal, $22,500 for silver and $15,000 for bronze — and medalists in marquee Olympic sports such as swimming figure to attract considerable NIL offers.
“I think it’s really cool that the NCAA is changing and letting athletes start to profit off our success,” Walsh said, “and I think for us this is … perfect timing.”
Fresh off the national championship in March, the Olympic success is ideally timed for UVA swimming, too.
Entering his fifth season as coach, DeSorbo has guided the women’s team to three ACC titles and the men’s team to a runner-up conference finish.
With an acclaimed recruiting class joining Douglass, Walsh and Weyant, the Virginia women’s squad should be formidable again in 2021-22. Walsh’s sister, Gretchen, is a part of that class and finished fifth in the 50 free at the Olympic trials, less than half-a-second behind winner Simone Manuel.
DeSorbo hesitates to burden young swimmers with expectations, but he believes Gretchen Walsh will join her older sister on Team USA at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“There’s no doubt in my mind she can be an Olympic medalist,” DeSorbo said, “not just on a relay, but individually.”
Reveling in the just-completed Games and planning for the next are irresistible, but soon the focus will turn to UVA’s 2021-22 season.
“Being reigning NCAA champs,” Douglass said, “definitely keeps me motivated for when we’re all back in the water together so that we can try and do that again, because that was a lot of fun.”