By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The pressure is there, and nobody pretends otherwise.
If the UVa men’s swimming team is to win the ACC championship for the third straight season and 11th time in 12 years, Mark Bernardino says, junior Scot Robison will have to lead the way.
Florida State and North Carolina are fully capable of dethroning Virginia, and Robison’s challenge is to do his part to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“We need him to be great,” said Bernardino, the Cavaliers’ longtime coach. “We need him to be our Michael Jordan, and he knows that. He relishes that responsibility.”
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the ACC championships are being held in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Jordan gained fame wearing the baby blue.
Born and raised in Charlotte, Robison has extensive ties to UNC. His mother and stepfather are Carolina graduates, and Robison has a stepsister who’s a freshman there.
“Growing up, my mom always wanted me to at least consider going to Chapel Hill,” Robison said. “But she was supportive of whatever I wanted to do, and she loves UVa now.”
UNC did not pursue Robison seriously. Neither did many other schools. Because of a shoulder injury he suffered as an 11th-grader, Robison “slipped under a lot of radar screens,” Bernardino said, “and I think that was a great break for us.”
Robison, 21, holds school records in the 50-yard freestyle (19.47 seconds) and 100 free (42.77). He’ll compete in those events, as well as the 200 free and four relays, at the ACC championships, which conclude Saturday night.
He’s the defending ACC champion in the 100 free. He placed fifth in the 200 free at the NCAA championships last year, earning All-America recognition.
“We need him to win at least two events [in Chapel Hill],” Bernardino said, “and we need him to be a very strong anchor on our relays.”
The pressure doesn’t faze Robison. His team needs him to do well, and “I should do well,” he said. “I’ve been swimming faster than I did last year, and training faster.”
Bernardino, whose UVa women’s team won its third straight ACC title last weekend, was head coach of the U.S. men’s team at the World University Games in Belgrade, Serbia, last summer. His swimmers included Robison.
“It had been a goal of mine since I was 12 or 13 to represent my country, and it was an amazing experience to be able to do that,” Robison said.
On the starting block before his first race in Belgrade, Robison recalled, he felt a “huge mix of anxiety and nervousness. But there’s also a lot of excitement. You want to prove to other people and yourself that you belong.”
If there were any doubts, Robison erased them. He anchored the U.S. team that won the 400 free relay and also collected silver medals in the 200 free and 800 free relay.
The international experience “really helped mature him,” Bernardino said. “I think when you go to these meets and have the opportunity to talk to other great athletes about how they train, and then you get to compete with them and against them, you find out, ‘Wow, I stand up against some of the best in the world, and I can beat them.’
“He came home, and this year he’s had a stronger work ethic and greater focus … He’s swimming faster on training sets. He’s more intensely focused on the small things that are difficult to focus on, the littlest details where you can save hundredths of a second. He’s really locking in on those details.”
Robison began swimming year-round when he was 9. A couple of years later, he quit, “just because I wanted to play some other sports,” Robison said.
And so he signed up for basketball and lacrosse, and he enjoyed playing both sports, especially hoops. After about a year, though, Robison was ready to get back in the pool.
“Once I’d gotten that out of my system, I decided swimming was what I was best in, and I really wanted to see how far I could go in the sport,” said Robison, who hopes to qualify for the 2010 Olympic Trials.
One of the Cavaliers’ other freestylers, junior Matt McLean, stands 6-6, and his stature is not unusual in the sport. At 5-10, Robison is short for an elite swimmer, as his teammates like to remind him.
“He’s definitely not the prototype,” Bernardino said. “A huge man is the prototypical swimmer, a guy like [Michael] Phelps.”
To compensate, Robison said, he has “to be a little sharper. I have to really, really work on my power.”
When he arrived at UVa in 2007, Robison weighed about 150 pounds. Since then, he’s added 20 pounds of muscle.
“Pound for pound, inch for inch, he’s as strong as anybody,” Bernardino said.
He’s also as explosive athlete who would easily dunk a basketball, Bernardino said, and that gives Robison another edge over taller swimmers.
“He’s lightning quick, so his turns are faster than most people’s,” Bernardino said.
Those skills will be on display this week at UNC’s Koury Natatorium. Robison admitted last week that he’ll be disappointed if UVa fails to win a third straight championship.
“These past couple of years, we’ve raised our expectations even higher,” he said.
There’s pressure on the Wahoos, without question, but “the way that everyone on the team has trained this year,” Robison said, “if we just swim to our capabilities, it’ll take care of itself.”