By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The record book shows that UVa men’s swimming and diving team won its fifth straight ACC championship last year. Yet those closest to the program consider the 2011-12 season anything but an unqualified success.
“I think if you ask anyone about last year, there was sort of this emptiness, a real empty feeling,” swimmer Brady Fox said Tuesday.
The cause? “It seemed like last year there were more people swimming for themselves, rather than for the team,” said Fox, a senior from Olney, Md.
For a coach who prides himself on the selflessness of his swimmers, that was difficult to accept. But it made the Cavaliers’ return to form this season that much more satisfying for Mark Bernardino, who’s in his 35th year overseeing the men’s and women’s teams at his alma mater.
A year ago in Christiansburg, UVa totaled only 32 more points than runner-up Virginia Tech at the ACC meet. In Greensboro, N.C., last weekend, the Wahoos, with 759.5 points, finished 162.5 ahead of the runner-up Hokies.
A week earlier, in the same pool, the UVa women had romped to their sixth straight ACC championship.
Bernardino said it was special to see his men “reconnect as a team, to have the type of chemistry, the type of respect for each other, that they had, the work ethic that they brought to the pool, every single day, the attitude, just a real positive sense of purpose.
“It was a return to what I would call the norm for Virginia Swimming. Last year for whatever reasons we battled a rocky road. We just couldn’t find our rhythm and we couldn’t find our chemistry as a team. This year it was all about team all the time. It was never about ‘me.’ It was always about ‘us.’ ”
Much of the credit, Bernardino said, goes to a fourth-year class that includes Fox, Tom Barrett, Nick Montes de Oca and Matt Murray.
“I think our seniors did a phenomenal job of turning things around, starting last March,” Bernardino said. “I think they realized that that’s not what we’re all about. Whatever took place in 2012 was not what Virginia Swimming is all about from a team perspective, and I give a lot of credit to our seniors for putting the emphasis and the stress back on team and making sure everybody understood from last March until Saturday night, when the [ACC] meet finished, that nothing superseded team.”
Fox said: “One thing I really liked about this team was, it just seemed like no one really cared about personal accomplishments. It was more, `We want to win this year’s ACCs and send X many people to NCAAs and score that high.’ That seemed to be what everyone was talking about.”
Many people consider swimming “an individual sport and not so much a team sport,” Fox said. “But with the work that you put in every day, not many people want to go to practice just for themselves, and it helps to have a great team around you. It makes coming to practice that much more enjoyable and just brings a whole different atmosphere to the pool.”
The men’s diving events were held during the ACC women’s meet in Christiansburg. The men’s swimming events began last Wednesday, and by night’s end Virginia, with 68 points, was in second place, close behind Florida State (70).
By the end of competition Thursday, UVa had opened up a 39-point lead on second-place Virginia Tech. The `Hoos blew the meet open on Friday, traditionally their weakest day.
“In the past, that was the day Tech thought they owned us and that was the day where they could win the meet,” Fox said. “I think we surprised everyone by our performance.”
When the Cavaliers left the Greensboro Aquatic Center late Friday night, they led the Hokies by a staggering 128 points.
Contested Friday were six events — the 400 medley relay, 400 IM, 100 butterfly, 200 free, 100 breast and 100 back.
“Historically, we haven’t been as deep or as strong in [some of] those races,” Bernardino said, “and historically the rest of the conference has used that day as a moving day on us. But this year the role was very much reversed.”
Fourteen swimmers from UVa advanced to Friday night’s finals. No other team had more than six.
Virginia’s individual winners in Greensboro were Barrett (200 free) and juniors Jan Daniec (1,650 free), Taylor Grey (200 breaststroke) and Brad Phillips (500 free). Also, UVa’s 800 free relay team of Barrett, freshman Nick Alexiou, sophomore David Ingraham and junior Parker Camp won gold after NC State was disqualified.
Just as significant, Bernardino said, was the performance of junior Nathan Hart in Greensboro.
“He had three eighth-place finishes” — in the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 butterfly — “but each of those races were huge for the team, and especially where they came in the meet,” Bernardino said. “He’s a guy that’s just been steadily coming along, and he had significant drops in time in this meet, and I think he sparked a lot of strong performances from a lot of guys on the team, based upon how he performed.”
Hart’s effort had “a snowball effect” on the other Cavaliers, Bernardino said, “especially on the second full day of the meet. It was the day that we knew we had to be strong in the 400 IM. He was our first athlete on the blocks, and he absolutely just lit it up. And when something like that happens, the rest of the team feeds on the momentum, and because swimming is such a mental sport, everybody said, `Wow, if he’s going that fast, we are too.’ So they responded in kind for the rest of that morning.”
Next up for UVa’s top swimmers are the NCAA championships in Indianapolis: March 21-23 for the women, March 28-30 for the men.
Since the ACC meet, Fox said, he’s heard from several alumni of the men’s program “who’ve actually reached out and thanked us for what we’ve done and for helping bring back the tradition that is UVa Swimming. That’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Of the lessons he’s learned from Bernardino, Fox said, among the most important is that in life “it can’t just always be about yourself, and your greatest success will come when you work together as a team and you have a team standing around you.”
For Bernardino, the ACC men’s title was his 16th, a conference record. With 11 women’s championships, he’s second all-time in the ACC. His 27 swimming and diving championships are also an ACC record.
“I don’t think for a second that any of those titles belong to me,” Bernardino said. “They belong to the swimmers, they belong to the team, they belong to the assistant coaches, the Virginia Swimming family. I’m just fortunate to be a small part of whatever takes place.
“I’m just really proud of what the teams and the swimmers have accomplished these many, many years. It’s just a great honor to know that they’ve represented themselves and their sport with such class and dignity.”