The UVA women's swimming and diving team celebrating their national championship Matt Riley/UVA Athletics

Any doubts that Virginia had fully arrived as a national swimming powerhouse were swept away in March by a ’Hoonami of American records and national titles at the 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships.

Virginia’s women repeated as NCAA champions in dominant fashion at Georgia Tech’s McAuley Aquatic Center in Atlanta, scoring 551.5 points to top swimming bluebloods University of Texas (406) and Stanford University (399.5). Of the 18 swimming events, the Cavaliers were victorious in 11 and runners-up in four others. Kate Douglass (Col ’23) and Alex Walsh (Col ’24) each collected three individual titles, while first-year Gretchen Walsh (Col ’25) added one individual title and two runners-up. The Cavaliers won four of the five relay events and broke seven American records along the way, exceeding even their own lofty expectations.

“They blew my mind; it was better than I thought they would have done,” said head coach Todd DeSorbo.

The team has developed dramatically since DeSorbo took over the program in 2017–18. In his first season, it finished ninth; a year later, it improved to sixth. In 2019–20 it won the ACC title and was the favorite for the NCAA championship before the COVID-19 pandemic forced cancellation of the meet. Now it’s the sixth women’s swimming and diving program to have collected back-to-back NCAA titles.

“It’s pretty historic, and I think what makes it more special for us is putting our team into context. … The trend has been exponential, and I don’t think any other team can say that they had the route to success that we have had,” said Alex Walsh, a second-year All-American and 2021 Olympic silver medalist. “It’s been pretty awesome.”

Last season, Virginia broke through to become the first ACC program to win a national title, beating conference rival North Carolina State 491–354 in Greensboro. As overwhelming favorites to repeat in Atlanta, they felt there was even more to prove this time as the championships returned to full strength with fans back in attendance.

“Last year on some level was a down year. COVID kind of slowed things down a little bit,” DeSorbo said. “It wasn’t quite as competitive, and this year we knew it was going to be significantly more competitive and a lot deeper.

“Coming into this year we felt like we had as good a team if not better—but you have to perform and go do it. We were pushed to our limit this year as far as winning events and breaking records. We had to be as good as we were to make it so it wasn’t a close meet.”

Virginia’s determination was exemplified by Douglass’ preseason commitment to become the best across a range of strokes. A third-year All-American and bronze medalist in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Douglass became the first swimmer in history to win individual titles in three separate stroke events—the 50-yard freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 breaststroke—setting American records in all three. She won all seven events she swam, including four relays.

Alex Walsh set an American record of her own in the 200 individual medley, collected individual titles in the 400 IM and 200 fly, and was part of three relay victories. Their combined individual and relay wins and overall versatility led swimming news organization SwimSwam to argue that Douglass and Walsh may be “the most dominant duo in NCAA history.” 

Gretchen Walsh, Alex’s younger sister, isn’t far out of the conversation herself. She won the 100 free, grabbed second place in the 100 backstroke and the 50 free, and was part of all four of Virginia’s winning relays.

The next week, Virginia’s men’s team exceeded expectations of its own, setting eight new school records to finish 10th in the NCAAs after a final-day surge vaulted it ahead of higher-ranked conference rivals Virginia Tech and Louisville. Matt Brownstead (Col ’24) and Matt King (Col ’24) led the charge that secured a third consecutive top-10 NCAA finish.

DeSorbo told his team before the meet that “pressure is a privilege,” but the swimmers showed no signs of stress from the jump. The Cavaliers led off the championships with their first NCAA title in the 200 medley relay, beating 2021 relay champ NC State with Douglass pulling away with a huge surge on the final freestyle stretch after Lexi Cuomo (Engr ’23) had erased the Pack’s narrow lead in the third butterfly leg. Being a runner-up to Stanford in the 800 freestyle relay helped establish an early tone on opening night.

In individual events the next day, 10 of 11 UVA swimmers hit lifetime bests. “From top to bottom, they just caught fire and went,” DeSorbo said. “It just built and built and built.”

Emma Weyant (Col ’25), a first-year who also won a silver medal in Tokyo before arriving at Virginia, finished runner-up in the 500 free with a career-best swim. Alexis Wenger (Col ’22), the only fourth-year to win NCAA gold, finished second by only 0.04 seconds in the 100 breaststroke and was part of the 200 and 400 medley relay wins. 

“It’s a little disappointing to be out-touched (in the 100 breast), but I did all that I could to get to the wall,” said Wenger, who will leave a program that has now proved itself to be elite.

“Last year people think we won because of COVID. So now doing what we’re doing and proving to everyone that we’re more than just a COVID year and we’re here to do this—it just feels really good to show everyone what we can do. We’re super-confident.”

That confidence filtered down through the entire team as 12 swimmers earned points. First-year Reilly Tiltmann (Col ’25) finished fifth in the 100 and 200 back and swam in the winning 400 free relay. Third-year Cuomo was part of the winning 200 medley and 200 free relays and reached the B finals of the 100 fly and 50 free. Third-year Ella Nelson (Educ ’23) reached three individual A finals. Third-year Maddie Donohoe (Col ’23) beat her personal best in the 1650 free by more than eight seconds to finish sixth and reached the 500 free B final. Abby Harter (Educ ’24), Anna Keating (Col ’24) and Jessica Nava (Com ’22) also collected points for the Cavs.

With almost everyone returning next year, what can the Cavalier women do for an encore? The Walsh sisters promise even bigger things.

“I would say we do have a lot of unfinished business,” Gretchen Walsh said. “Every single day we’re getting better, so it’s just a matter of time before we do something else that’s just history in the making.”

Said Alex Walsh: “We have a great group of first-years coming in next year, and I think it’s great the whole team will get to be leaders for them and show them what it takes to be national champions. Todd has done such a great job of recruiting girls who want to contribute to this team and want to be a part of history. It’s on us to keep inspiring them.”

Scott Michaux is a freelance writer based in Georgia.