College Swimming Previews: #1 Virginia Women Riding NCAA, Olympic Momentum

After a one-year hiatus due to the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-2021 season, our college previews are back! We’ll be previewing the 2021-2022 seasons for the top 12 men’s and women’s programs from the 2021 NCAA Division I Championships – stay tuned to our College Swimming Previews channel to catch all 24. 

#1 Virginia Cavaliers

Key Losses: Paige Madden (60 NCAA points, 2 relays), Caroline Gmelich (11 NCAA points, 1 relay), Kyla Valls (4 NCAA points, 2 relays), Jocelyn Porter (NCAA qualifier)

Key Additions: #2 Gretchen Walsh (TN – free/back), #17 Ella Bathurst (FL – free/back), Kate Morris (IL – free), Abby Kapeller (back/fly), Athena Vanyo (VA – fly/back), Jaycee Yegher (Harvard transfer – breast)

Returning Fifth Years: None


Two years ago, we unveiled a new, more data-based grading criteria based on ‘projected returning points’, a stat of our own making that involved a lot of manual calculations involving departing seniors, redshirts, freshmen, etc. We liked the objectiveness of that stat, but given that there’s still a lot of uncertainty for this year, we’re adopting a hybrid approach this year. The “stars” will rely heavily on what swimmers actually did last year, but we’ll also give credit to returning swimmers or freshmen who have times that would have scored last year.

Since we only profile the top 12 teams in this format, our grades are designed with that range in mind. In the grand scheme of college swimming and compared to all other college programs, top 12 NCAA programs would pretty much all grade well across the board. But in the interest of making these previews informative, our grading scale is tough – designed to show the tiers between the good stroke groups, the great ones, and the 2015 Texas fly group types.

5 star (★★★★★) – a rare, elite NCAA group projected to score 25+ points per event
4 star (★★★★) – a very, very good NCAA group projected to score 15-24 points per event
3 star (★★★) – a good NCAA group projected to score 5-14 points per event
2 star (★★) – a solid NCAA group projected to score 1-4 points per event
1 star (★) –  an NCAA group that is projected to score no points per event, though that doesn’t mean it’s without potential scorers – they’ll just need to leapfrog some swimmers ahead of them to do it

We’ll grade each event discipline: sprint free (which we define to include all the relay-distance freestyle events, so 50, 100 and 200), distance free, IM, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and diving. Use these grades as a jumping-off point for discussion, rather than a reason to be angry.

2020-2021 LOOKBACK

The Virginia Cavaliers had been recruiting up a storm since head coach Todd DeSorbo and company arrived in Charlottesville late in the summer of 2017, and that great recruiting, plus development, paid off in spades as UVA captured its first NCAA women’s swimming and diving championship in March.

UVA appeared to be in title contention in the spring of 2020, but they weren’t able to fully show what they could do when the pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Championships. When swimming resumed last fall, the Cavaliers, especially the uber-versatile Kate Douglass, put up some fast times all season, including a U.S. Open Record at the 2021 ACC Championships in the 200 medley relay en route to an easy conference championship title.

A few weeks later, UVA was competing for its first NCAA team title. While they didn’t necessarily swim a heckuva lot faster than they’d been swimming in-season, the Cavaliers swam plenty fast enough. Paige Madden wrapped up her collegiate career by sweeping the three longest freestyle events. Douglass came close to doing the same, winning the 50 free and taking 2nd in another two events, while Alex Walsh also added three individual A-final appearances.

In the end, the Cavaliers racked up 491 points to win by nearly 140 points over the 2nd-place NC State Wolfpack. The momentum continued into the Olympic summer. Madden, Douglass, and Walsh, along with Emma Weyant, all made the US Olympic team and earned medals, while DeSorbo also made it Tokyo as an assistant coach for the US team.

Sprint Free:★★★★★

It feels just a bit bizarre that Kate Douglass first individual NCAA title came in the 50 free, given her incredible versatility, but that’s the world in which we live. Her winning time of 21.13 wasn’t even her best time, as she went 21.09 leading off UVA’s 200 free relay right before swimming the individual 50. Couple that with a 46.30 in the 100 free (2nd at NCAAs), and a lifetime best of 1:44.51 (from a September intrasquad meet), and Douglass would be one of the best swimmers in the NCAA even without factoring in her other events. She’s the school record holder in the 50 and the 100 free, along with (spoiler alert!) the 200 breast, 200 IM, and the 100 fly.

The ‘Hoos lose 200 free champion Paige Madden, but bring back Alex Walsh, who finished 5th in that event in a time of 1:44.12. Walsh also split 21.28/47.63/1:43.18 on UVA’s free relays.

Alex’s sister, Gretchen Walsh, is more of a drop-dead sprinter, arriving with lifetime bests of 21.41/46.98/1:43.75 in the freestyles. All three of those times would’ve finished in the top four at NCAAs.

When your top three freestylers are that strong, you don’t need that much more depth, but it’s there. Lexi Cuomo swam the 50 and the 100 at NCAAs, and while she missed scoring, her ACC times of 21.99/48.52 would’ve scored. Breaststroker Alexis Wenger also swam the 50, going 22.61, and Julia Menkhaus qualified for NCAAs with a 1:46.80 in the 200, ultimately finishing 41st.

The freshman class is replete with great freestylers even outside of the younger Walsh. Olympic IMer Emma Weyant arrives with a lifetime best of 1:45.28 in the 200 free, Ella Bathurst could be a factor sooner rather than later at 49.21/1:45.71, while Kate Morris (22.8/49.8/1:46.7) and Abby Kapeller (22.6/49.9) provide additional depth.

Distance Free: ★★★

This group definitely takes a hit with Paige Madden‘s departure, but there’s some great talent left, if not much depth. Junior Maddie Donohoe returns after scoring in both the 500 free and the 1650 last season.

Emma Weyant was supposed to matriculate in the fall of 2020, but she opted to wait a year, a decision that culminated with an Olympic medal. While that medal came in the 400 IM, she seems likely to go with the 500 free over the 200 IM, as her lifetime best of 4:38 would’ve put 4th at NCAAs last season.

Backstroke: ★★★★

Last season, Reilly Tiltmann wrapped up high school early and unexpectedly joined the team during the spring semester, then became the Cavaliers’ highest-scoring backstroker at NCAAs. She led off the 400 medley relay in 50.49, then missed the A-final in the 100, but rallied to go 51.33 and win the B-final. The next day she came back and went 1:50.66 in the 200 back, taking 5th.

Gretchen Walsh has already been 51.15 this year, making her 3rd all-time at UVA behind Courtney Barthlomew and Tiltmann. Fellow freshman Abby Kapeller arrives with bests of 53.7/1:58.7, bringing in even more backstroke depth.

Alex Walsh is an accomplished backstroker that could swap out the 200 breast for the 200 back on the final day of NCAAs if she wanted and still likely make the ‘A’ final. However, she chose breaststroke last season and it was a success (fifth place) and the backstroke events have only gotten even more competitive this season.

Breaststroke: ★★★★★

The Cavaliers have one of the deepest breaststroke groups in the country, and that’s even allowing for the fact that the 200 breast school record holder didn’t even swim the event at NCAAs

Senior Alexis Wenger was UVA’s top two-distance breaststroker last season, finishing 3rd in the 100 breast (57.67) and 7th in the 200 breast (2:06.90, 2:06.65 prelims) at NCAAs. She holds the school record in the 100 breast at 57.60.

As a freshman, Anna Keating couldn’t match her season-bests of 58.81/2:07.26 at NCAAs. Those times would’ve put her towards the top of both B-finals, but she ended up just missing scoring, finishing 17th in the 100 and 21st in the 200.

Jaycee Yegher joins the team as a grad student after completing her undergrad at Harvard. She comes in with bests of 59.39/2:08.47—that 200 time would’ve made the B-final at NCAAs.

We’ve made it this far without getting to the really heavy hitters. Kate Douglass has “only” been 59.53 in the 100, but her 200 time of 2:03.93, which came a few weeks before ACCs, would’ve taken 2nd at NCAAs.

Unlike Douglass, Ella Nelson and Alex Walsh both swam the 200 at NCAAs, with Nelson taking 2nd with a 2:04.35 and Walsh taking 5th with a 2:05.86 (2:05.64 in prelims). Neither swam the 100 at NCAAs, but Walsh’s lifetime best of 58.19 from four years ago would’ve finished 6th in the championship final.

Butterfly: ★★★★★

While Kate Douglass is once again the big name, this is another deep group. Douglass is, of course, one of the fastest women ever in the 100 fly, and she took 2nd at NCAAs in 49.55, trailing only Maggie MacNeil and her U.S Open record-setting effort of 48.89. Douglass probably won’t swim the 200 fly at the championship meet, but it is intriguing to see what she could do, given that her lifetime best of 1:56.04 came at a dual meet in early 2020.

Meanwhile, Abby Harter actually led the Cavaliers in butterfly scoring last year, thanks to a 12th place finish in the 100 fly (51.92 after going 51.83 in prelims) and a 6th place effort in the 200 (1:53.86).

Lexi Cuomo joined Douglass in the 100 fly A-final, going 51.80 for 8th after going 51.49 in prelims. Jessica Nava chipped in a couple points with her 15th place in the 100.  She just missed scoring in the 200, but her lifetime best of 1:54.35 would’ve made the B-final. Julia Menkhaus finished 35th in the 200 fly prelims after qualifying with a 1:56.44.

Freshmen Abby Kapeller and Athena Vanyo bring in additional 100 fly depth with bests of 54.16 and 53.99.

IM: ★★★★★

Do you remember that time a team had one of the fastest women ever, and Olympic medalist to-be, skip the 200 IM, and still had one of the best IM groups in history? Yeah, that time is now.

Courtesy of the NCAA

Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass earned silver and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200 IM in Tokyo, but if we rewind four months, we’d see that only Walsh swam the yards version of the event at NCAAs.

Walsh, of course, earned the NCAA title with a 1:51.87, actually a bit slower than her best time of 1:51.53 from ACCs. Douglass, though, has been ever faster, and her lifetime best of 1:50.92 makes her the #3 performer all-time in the event.

Ella Nelson is the Cavaliers’ best returning two-distance IMer. She owns lifetime bets of 1:54.72 and 4:02.33, the latter mark a school record, and she finished 5th and 2nd, respectively, at NCAAs.

Abby Harter finished 29th at NCAAs, but her seed time of 1:56.22 would’ve nearly made the A-final had she hit in prelims. Julia Menkhaus also qualified with a 1:59.50.

The Cavaliers’ IM group will also feature an Olympic 400 IM medalist in the form of Emma Weyant. Her yards best of 4:04.48 would put her in the middle of the A-final at NCAAs. She may opt for the 500 free instead of the 200 IM, but her best time of 1:58.07 is only a second away from NCAA scoring and came three years ago.

Fellow freshman Ella Bathurst arrives with a 200 IM lifetime best of 1:58.24, just about a second away from what it took to score last year.

Diving: ★

The Cavaliers had three divers qualify for NCAAs last season, and two return for this campaign: Jennifer Bell and Charlotte Bowen. The pair had nearly identical results at NCAAs, finishing 46th/47th in the 1m and 35th/33rd in the 3m.

Freshman Elizabeth Kaye brings some solid diving credentials. She was a four-time George state champion and All-American, as well as a USA Diving Junior Nationals finalist.


The team set school records in every relay except the 400 free relay last season, and there’s plenty of options to fill the few holes. If anything, there may be too many options, given the crazy versatilities of D2W.

Gretchen Walsh should join with her sister, Douglass, and Cuomo on both of the shorter free relays, replacing Kyla Valls and Paige Madden and offering a substantial boost to those two relays, which both finished 2nd at NCAAs.

The 800 free relay needs a little bit more of an overhaul after losing Valls and Madden. Nelson and Alex Walsh return. Gretchen Walsh seems likely to swim this, and there’s enough flexibility in the medleys that they could shift Douglass onto this relay if necessary.

Gretchen Walsh has already split 23.69 leading off the 200 medley relay this season, faster than Caroline Gmelich‘s lead-off from NCAAs, and that’s the only medley relay leg the Hoos have to replace. Wenger (breast), Cuomo (fly), and Douglass (free) all return from both medleys, while Tiltmann swam the 400 at NCAAs.

Still, there’s a lot of options, and don’t be surprised if UVA tinkers with these relays all season long.

2021-2022 Outlook

This is an incredibly talented team that should be competing for NCAA titles for the next few years at the very least. Having said that, other schools with championship pedigree (e.g., Stanford), should bounce back this year and could give the Cavaliers a run for their money.

With very strong relays and some elite stars with Swiss army knife-like versatility, it’s hard to imagine them slipping much, point-wise. Still, it feels like a bit of a stretch to imagine them adding an additional 75-100 points and reaching the heights of, say, the 2017 Stanford women. The good news is that 525 points is usually enough to win NCAAs again, and there’s enough talent coming in to replace the points they lost that they have the ability to improve, at least a bit, on last year’s point total.

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