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Junior Erika Stewart and the Virginia women’s swimming and diving team returns to action this weekend with a dual meet at Tennessee. The meet is scheduled for 12 p.m. Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn. Stewart, a native of Durham, N.C., recently sat down with to talk about winter break, looking ahead to the Tennessee meet, what she likes to do for fun and her favorite international experience.

Question: How is training going now that you’re on break?
Right now, even Mark (Bernardino) said it, is the most crucial part of the year. We don’t have classes or much of anything else to worry about. We are getting down and dirty with our training, and the best part is, we are all doing it together. We’re sore and it’s really easy for negative thoughts to creep in, but we have each other to lift everyone up. ACCs are only a few weeks away, so we are excited and have a lot to look forward to.

Question: The last time you competed was at the Georgia Invitational back in early December. What were you able to take away from that meet?
I felt like that was my breakthrough meet for this year. I had a little bit of a rough start at the beginning of the season but was able to get back to where I wanted to be. I was really happy with the way I swam and had some in-season lifetime bests. That makes it more exciting in looking forward to rest and taper.

Question: What are you expecting out of Tennessee this weekend?
They were here last year, so obviously this year they will have the advantage of swimming in their own pool. We haven’t competed there but we have trained there; it’s a nice pool. We are excited for the good competition – they have always been right around where we are and I am sure they are training just has hard as we are.

Question: How would you say you have improved from your first week on Grounds as a first year until now, a third year?
It’s definitely a learning experience. You come in and you’re not used to having to step up or compete everyday at a high level. The club atmosphere is more about the very end; here, there is no time for meets you can’t take seriously. Every time you put your suit on, no matter where you are in your training, you’re expected to do well. The other thing is, you’re not swimming for yourself. You learn to swim for the person beside you. I think that is a huge thing – learning about the team atmosphere and caring about another person’s swim just as much as your own. It’s a cool thing.

Question: What is your favorite event to swim? What is your best?
I think my favorite is the 100 backstroke, because it’s short. It’s over before you know it but you can still get your adrenaline pumping before it and go after it. I would say my best event is the 200 back, I still like it, it’s just double.

Question: Why did you choose to come to UVa?
I knew I wanted to come here as soon as I set foot on Grounds. I know it’s cliché, but some people say the hardest decision they ever had to make was where they go to college. I was really thankful that my decision was so easy. I am from North Carolina, and UNC was a very comparable program. But I loved the traditions that we have, the team atmosphere, the coaches. There is nobody like Mark – he is one-of-a-kind. He definitely made me feel confident that I was going into a program that was ready to go forth and succeed. I wanted to be a part of that.

Question: What is your major?
I am a sociology major and I kind of recently decided that I might continue with graduate school. I haven’t completely looked into it, but it’s a possibility. I am thinking about mental health counseling. I am a pretty good people person. I really enjoy learning about sociology; I have never considered myself the math and science type.

Question: What do you like to do for fun?
Right now the dining halls are closed, so my roommate bought a cookbook. We are going to venture out and start to do some cooking. I also got a Nook from Barnes & Noble, and it’s kind of nerdy, but I am going to try to get my reading on! It’s always been something I wish I could do more.

Question: You’ve had a lot of international experience, and you’ve been a lot of places. What’s your favorite?
Rome. Obviously the Beijing experience was unreal because it was the Olympics and just the atmosphere and the people – it was incredible. The World Championships were in Rome and so it was similar, but I just loved Rome. We got some time to go out and be tourists. Ate some gelato, pizza, pasta – I never got sick of it. That was my favorite experience.

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