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June 21, 2013

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The package arrived Thursday afternoon for Ellen Williamson, a box filled with apparel on which was displayed, in large letters: USA.

If Williamson needed a reminder that she’ll be representing her country next month at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia, the gear she received from USA Swimming provided it.

“I don’t think it’ll really hit me till I’m there,” Williamson said Thursday, “but the feeling has definitely gotten [stronger] today, getting that stuff.”

A rising junior from Fort Mitchell, Ky., near Cincinnati, Williamson will compete in the 200-meter backstroke in Kazan.

“This is a very, very high-caliber international competition, and many athletes use this as a stepping stone toward even bigger international competitions,” Virginia coach Mark Bernardino said. “One of Ellen’s stated goals when she came here, and when we recruited her, was that she wanted to represent her country in one of the major international competitions.

“She has worked extremely hard to get to this level. We’re really thrilled for her. This is a great, great honor.”

At USA Swimming’s U.S. Open in Indianapolis last August, Williamson placed third among Americans in the 200 backstroke. The top two Americans earned spots on the World University Games team. One of those was the University of Georgia’s Megan Romano, who later withdrew from the 200 backstroke to concentrate on her other events in Kazan.

In early February, Williamson received an email from USA Swimming. When she opened it, she learned she’d been invited to compete in the World University Games.

“It was really cool,” Williamson recalled this week. “You have to email back and say you accept, which was really fun, to be able to email that.”

Williamson won two ACC titles in February — in the 200-yard individual medley and the 800 freestyle relay — to help the Wahoos capture their sixth consecutive conference championship. She was second at the ACC meet in the 200 backstroke and third in the 100 butterfly.

In 2011-12, she was the ACC freshman of the year and a member of the U.S. national junior team. A four-time honorable-mention All-American, Williamson has done all this as a systems engineering major at UVa.

“She’s an extraordinarily bright kid,” Bernardino said, “majoring in engineering with probably a 3.5 or 3.6 cumulative GPA.”

A graduate of Notre Dame Academy in Park Hills, Ky., Williamson also swam for the Northern Kentucky Clippers club as a girl. She was named first-team all-state four times.

“She was a smart kid looking for a great swimming school,” Bernardino said. “We contacted her, and she contacted us back, and we went through the normal recruiting process, and we’re fortunate enough to have her here.”

Williamson visited four schools: UVa, Georgia, Notre Dame and Arizona. That she already knew some of swimmers in Bernardino’s program, including Rachel Naurath, made Virginia appealing to Williamson. So did the University’s academic reputation.

“And then I really liked just the coaching staff, talking to them, and I felt like UVa was on a really good rise in the swimming world,” Williamson said. “I thought they were going to do some really good things in the future, and I wanted to be a part of a program that was building. It was kind of the best of both worlds of the schools I was looking at. So it just worked out in every way.”

Athletic genes run through the Williamson family. Ellen’s father, Kenny, played baseball at Northern Kentucky University. Her mother, Cindy, played volleyball at Clemson. Ellen’s brother, Max, is headed to Stanford on a swimming scholarship.

Growing up, Williamson said, she also played volleyball and ran cross country, but swimming soon became her sport of choice.

“I just always liked being in the water,” she said.

She also liked that “in swimming you don’t have to be the most talented person to excel if you have a stronger work ethic than someone who’s really talented but doesn’t work hard at all,” Williamson said. “I know Mark always says that about swimming and how he loves that. I really liked that about it when I was younger, because I wasn’t super-tall or anything like that.”

That’s still the case. “I’m probably one of the shortest people on the team,” Williamson said. UVa’s roster lists her height as 5-8. “It’s wrong,” she said, laughing. “I’m 5-6 and maybe a quarter inch.”

After traveling to Kentucky last month for her brother’s graduation from Covington Catholic High School, Williamson returned to Charlottesville, where she’s been training with other UVa swimmers and attending summer school. She got an A in a probability course and is now enrolled in a statistics class.

In the pool, Bernardino said, Williamson’s “training has been superb. This is as good as I’ve seen her train in the two years that she’s been here. She’s really locked in and doing some great things.”

As a junior swimmer, Williamson visited Ireland in 2010, but she’s never been to Russia. She’ll have plenty of time to explore Kazan. The preliminaries in the 200 backstroke are the morning of July 10, with the semifinals that night.

The finals, for which the top eight swimmers will qualify, are July 11. The U.S. team won’t depart Russia until July 18, “so I’m really excited to be able to look around [the city],” said Williamson, whose father will join her in Kazan for several days.

The U.S. team leaves July 6 for Russia. Bernardino has coached for the United States at several international meets, most recently at the Pan American Games in 2012. His advice for UVa swimmers, such as Williamson, before they compete for the first time on such a big stage?

“I just try to explain to them that this is no different than an NCAA championship meet or an ACC championship meet,” Bernardino said.

“Go in there, be prepared, do the warmup that makes you feel most ready to swim. Do the pace work that you need to do, and don’t overthink. It’s just another race. You’ve been in meets with athletes of the highest caliber at Olympic Trials, at NCAA championships, at conference championships. Just do what you do best and stay on your race strategy and your game plan. And have fun.”

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