By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE – For the next 10 days, you won’t find Mark Bernardino in the building where he spends most working hours — UVa’s Aquatic and Fitness Center, home of the ACC’s premier swimming program.
He’s in Mexico.
This is no vacation for Bernardino, who’s in his 34th season as head coach of the men’s and women’s teams at his alma mater. He’s an assistant on the U.S. men’s team that, starting Saturday, will compete at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, and his swimmers include former UVa great Scot Robison.
Practice has started for the Cavaliers, who have won four straight ACC titles on both the men’s and women’s sides, and Bernardino isn’t due back in Charlottesville until Oct. 22. That made him pause when he was asked to be part of the U.S. coaching staff, but he has faith in his assistants, who include the recently hired Anna Miller.
“She has just been lights-out in her first month with us,” Bernardino said Tuesday from Dulles International Airport, “and having her on board, and having the veterans Chip Kline and Doak Finch here as well, I feel confident that our training will go on uninterrupted, as it always has. We talked about it with the team. They understand what their role is in all of this, and I think they’re excited and prepared to do all the things they’ve done in the past.
“The advent of technology allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of everything that’s going on relative to workouts. I’ll be checking in every single day. I’ll be speaking to the staff every day. The kids know how to reach me every day if there’s any concerns, and we’ll just make it work.”
Bernardino served as the head coach of the U.S. men’s team at the 2009 World University Games in Belgrade, Serbia, and he treasures the international experiences he’s had over the course of his career.
“For me, I would never turn down the opportunity to represent my country,” he said, “and certainly the legacy of USA Swimming, in terms of an athletic dynasty, is probably as great an athletic dynasty as has ever existed in sport. So to be a piece of that fabric, to have the opportunity to be part of that legacy, is very, very special.
“I would hope it’s equally special — and I know it is — for our athletes, too, to put on the USA jacket and to compete against the best of the world in these different competitions.”
For his swimmers, competing outside the United States “hardens them to the reality of competition,” Bernardino said. “NCAA swimming competition is truly world swimming competition. Approximately 20 percent to a third of the competitors at every NCAA championship meet in swimming are international superstars, so being able to participate in these type of events gives our athletes, I think, a good sense and a good feeling for the competition they’re going to face at an NCAA-level meet.
“And it hardens them and steels them. It steels their nerves for what they’re going to see and who they’re going to face, and in the long run hopefully it makes them much better competitors.”
Rachel Naurath is counting on that. Naurath, a sophomore from Manakin-Sabot in Goochland County, competed in August at the World University Games in Shenzhen, China.
“It’s a different level of excitement, I guess you’d say, representing your country as opposed to your school,” Naurath said recently. “It’s the same amount of passion and excitement, but representing your country’s a pretty big deal. There’s a good amount of pressure there, both in and out of the pool, to conduct yourself well and represent the USA well.”
As a senior at Collegiate School in Richmond, Naurath competed in Ireland, but the World University Games, she said recently, “was my first really big-scale international event.”
She placed 10th in the 200-meter butterfly. Also in Shenzhen, former UVa star Matt McLean earned two gold medals, one in the 200-meter freestyle.
“It definitely gives you confidence, just knowing you can step up in an atmosphere like that,” Naurath said. “It’s just something to think about while you’re training as well. I definitely want to have that experience again, so it’s motivation.”
She competed in the 400 and 800 freestyle at the 2008 Olympic Trials and has qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials in five events: the 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, 800 freestyle, 100 butterfly and 200 butterfly.
Naurath, who swam for coach Geoff Brown in the Richmond-based NOVA program, is coming off a freshman year in which she won won the 200 butterfly and helped the Cavaliers capture the 800 freestyle relay at the ACC championships.
“I was very, very happy with my first year,” said Naurath, who plans to carry a double major, in French and foreign affairs. “I dropped some serious time, especially in my freestyle events, so I was so happy with how that ended up. It was a fabulous year. The training was awesome, the coaches were great, and I love my teammates.”
For all of Naurath’s success, Bernardino said, there “are still many technical and mechanical and training aspects of the sport that she has yet to grasp.
“A lot of her success is due to her work ethic and her desire to excel in training. And I think if we can take that work ethic and get her to understand how critically important it is for her to refine her technique and mechanics, and for her to refine her race strategies and the skills that she employs while she’s racing, and if she’s willing to make some of those significant changes, then I think she’s got the opportunity to challenge for NCAA championships and the opportunity to continue to represent her country in international swimming.
“So we haven’t seen the best of Rachel Naurath yet. I think there’s still a lot to look forward to, and we’re certainly excited over the course of the next three years to cultivate those skills and cultivate those talents to the max.”
In 2010, Naurath joined a team led by the most illustrious class in the history of the Virginia women’s program. The Wahoos’ seniors last season — Katya Bachrouche, Claire Crippen, Hannah Davis, Amanda Faulkner, Jennings Grant, Kristen Moores, Anne Summer Myers and Liz Shaw — left with four ACC titles.
Bachrouche, who will swim for Lebanon in the 2012 Olympic Games, is still in Charlottesville, and it’s “really nice to have here there to train with,” Naurath said. “But yeah, I miss that class so much. They were such awesome people. But it’s also kind of nice, because it’s an opportunity for a lot of new people to step up.
“It’s definitely been shaken up a little, but in a positive way. There’s definitely new people emerging as leaders, and everyone’s really stepping up. It’ll be interesting to see how things go when we start our meets, as far as people stepping up actually in races.”