Earlier this month, Virginia women’s swimming and diving secured its third national title in three years, literally and metaphorically swimming laps around the competition. But just a few years prior to the three-peat, no one could have predicted the heights that the Cavaliers have reached.
In 2017, Virginia women’s swimming and diving was left in limbo. It was the program’s first time not winning the Women’s ACC title since 2013 and it failed to qualify for the National Championship Meet. Furthermore, Coach Augie Busch announced that he was leaving the team to become the head coach at Arizona State University. In his four years in Charlottesville, Busch had won the ACC Women’s Swimming Coach of the Year three times and helped lead the team to three ACC championships.
Virginia stayed in the ACC in their search for a new coach, eventually landing with NC State’s Todd DeSorbo. It was an obvious hire — in his six years as associate head coach in North Carolina, he coached the women to their first ACC title since 1980 and led the men’s side to three ACC titles. DeSorbo also coached three of his student-athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In DeSorbo’s first year as head coach, Women’s Swimming won the ACC title in 2018. They also qualified for nationals that year and the following year in 2019. Much of the success was spearheaded by Paige Madden, who came in as a freshman for DeSorbo’s first season. During her time at Virginia, she would go on to be a two-time ACC Swimmer of the year.
Entering the 2020 season, Virginia fielded star freshman Kate Douglass alongside Madden. Douglass won the 200-yard medley at the 2020 ACC Championships, while Madden won three individual titles at the ACC Championships that year. Their relay and individual efforts would help Virginia win the 2020 ACC title. However, Virginia’s swimmers would not get to compete at the NCAA National Championships, which were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The team that returned after the pandemic was something Virginia had never seen before.
DeSorbo landed the recruitment of three-time Pan American gold medalist Alexandra “Alex” Walsh. Walsh, the daughter of Boston College’s former swim team captain Glynis Walsh, enrolled as a freshman at Virginia for the 2021 season. Madden also returned to the squad for her senior season, helping Virginia defend their ACC title from the year before.
At the 2021 NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships, Douglass and Madden dominated the freestyle events. Madden walked away with three out of the five possible first places. Walsh walked away with the 200 individual medley title while the Cavaliers also won the 800 freestyle relay. These combined efforts won Virginia their first-ever NCAA Championship for Women's Swimming and Diving. It marked the first time an ACC school won the title.
For some Cavaliers, the season was not over. Madden, Walsh and Douglass all qualified for the 2021 Olympics as part of Team USA. Virginia also had an incoming freshman Emma Weyant, set to compete in Tokyo. At 19 years old, Weyant won the silver medal in the 400m individual medley. Walsh and Douglass ended up competing against each other in the 200m individual medley, with both teammates placing on the podium. Douglass won the bronze medal while Walsh edged her for the silver.
Even with the loss of Madden to graduation, Virginia successfully defended their national title in 2022. The team gained the addition of Gretchen Walsh, the younger sister of Alex Walsh, who walked away with the 100 yard freestyle title. Douglass won her second 50 yard freestyle title and added the 200 yard breaststroke and 100 yard butterfly titles to her legacy. Alex repeated her 200 individual medley win from the year before and won two other individual titles for Virginia. As a team, Virginia dominated the relays, winning four of the five races.
Earlier this March, Virginia Women’s swimming and diving won its third straight National Championship despite Weyant transferring to the University of Florida. It also won its fourth straight ACC Championship. The Walsh sisters, junior Maxine Parker — a transfer student who DeSorbo recruited from the University of Georgia — and Douglass set an NCAA record in the 400 freestyle relay with a time of 3 minutes and 5.84 seconds. Virginia won all 5 relays with Alex, Gretchen and Douglass all winning individual titles for Virginia.
Virginia completed its most recent title defense with a total of 541.5 points, defeating second-place Texas by 127 points. The Cavaliers have won all three of the last NCAA Championships by a margin of more than 100 points.
Virginia joins the company of Stanford, Texas, Auburn and Georgia as the only schools to three-peat in Women’s swimming and diving. Virginia also holds 19 ACC Championships and 35 individual/relay NCAA titles. However, as dominant as Virginia has been recently, there is still a lot of work to do to compare itself to other programs.
Stanford’s last three-peat ended right before Virginia’s started, as they won in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Stanford also five-peated in the 1990s, as well as Texas who five-peated in the 1980s. In total, Stanford leads the race with 11 total Women’s NCAA Championships in team swimming and diving. Georgia and Texas are tied at seven, Auburn has five and Berkley is ahead of Virginia with four team titles. So, is a four-peat possible?
While Virginia will lose Douglass, Alex and Parker will be returning for their senior seasons along with rising-junior Gretchen. Douglass concludes her collegiate career with a whopping seven total individual NCAA titles and countless Virginia, NCAA and American records broken. However, Alex is in line to leave a similar impact on the program heading into her senior year, having already secured five total individual NCAA titles in her time as a Cavalier.
The Cavaliers also have some younger talent. Rising sophomore Aimee Canny played a crucial role in winning two of the relay titles in 2023. Canny recorded the best time for the Cavaliers in the 400m medley relay and also took bronze in the 200m individual freestyle at the 2023 NCAA Championships. Sophomore Reilly Titlmann aided in Virginia’s 2023 800m freestyle relay title and will compete for another two years.
The bottom line is that DeSorbo knows how to recruit and coach some of the best swimmers in the world. If his past six years at Virginia serve as any indication of the future of the Women’s swimming and diving program, the Cavaliers will be competing with powerhouses like Stanford for many years to come.