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Jan. 16, 2014

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — Courtney Bartholomew was home in Holland, Mich., getting ready to take a post-workout nap July 1 when she checked her phone.

She saw an email from Craig Littlepage, UVa’s director of athletics, who delivered stunning news: Mark Bernardino, head men’s and women’s swimming and diving coach at his alma mater for 35 years, was retiring, effective that day.

“I just remember reading the email, and I dropped my phone,” Bartholomew said last month at the Aquatic and Fitness Center. “I just remember sitting down. I didn’t know whether to cry, whether to scream. I just sat there. I didn’t move for a while. And my mom was like, `Are you OK?’ She’d heard the phone drop. I was like, `No, I’m not.’ “

In her first season at UVa, Bartholomew had won two ACC titles, in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke, and been named the conference’s freshman of the year for 2013. But now, suddenly, she was no longer sure what the future held for her in Charlottesville.

Virginia announced the hiring of Bernardino’s successor, Augie Busch, on July 10, and Bartholomew talked to her new coach on the phone not long that after that.

The conversation went well. When she returned to UVa in mid-August, Bartholomew said, “I came back with the attitude like, `This isn’t the coaching staff that I chose. But I did choose this school, and I do love this school and this team.’ And I knew that if things didn’t work out with the coaching staff, I’d definitely have other options. But I did come in with an open mind, because I did want to give them the benefit of the doubt and let them do what they needed to, which I think they’ve totally done.”

Busch hired his younger brother, Sam Busch, Cory Chitwood and Clif Robbins as assistant coaches, and the new staff won over Bartholomew immediately. “They were so energetic and enthusiastic about all of it, that it was just exciting to see a new energy,” she said.

Five months later, the staff continues to impress Bartholomew.

“I think the transition has gone better than I expected, personally,” she said. “I can’t speak for anyone else on the team here, about their transition, but for me I just know that I can’t thank the former coaching staff enough, that they’re the people that got me here and they’re the reason why I wanted to come to UVa. And it’s sad to see that go. But I think that the new coaches have definitely stepped in, and the transition has moved really well.”

Before taking over the women’s program at Houston in 2011, Augie Busch was an assistant at Arizona under his father, Frank Busch, and the Busches were aware of a talented young backstroker in Michigan.

“I got a letter from them my sophomore year of high school,” Bartholomew recalled, “congratulating me, because I swam so well.”

So Busch knew a little about Bartholomew when he took over a program that has swept the ACC men’s and women’s titles in each of the past six seasons. His appreciation for her has grown since then.

“First and foremost,” Busch said, “she knows how to work. She loves to race. You can tell she lives a championship lifestyle outside of the pool.

“She’s independent, strong, knows what she wants, knows what she doesn’t need or want. So she takes great ownership over her swimming, which is something we try to challenge her to do.

“She’s coachable, for sure. She definitely doesn’t come across as someone who thinks she knows all the answers. She thinks she’s always got ways to improve. She’s a definite team player.”

She’s also one of the most promising swimmers in the United States. In the NCAA, Bartholomew ranks No. 1 in the 100 backstroke and No. 2 in the 200 backstroke this school year.

At the Ohio State Invite in late November, Bartholomew set ACC, UVa, McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion and meet records in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke, winning those events in 50.73 and 1:50.55 seconds, respectively.

Her 100 time is the fastest in the nation this season and ranks No. 5 all-time in the event. Her 200 time, also the nation’s fastest this season, ranks ninth all-time.

“It’s a huge accomplishment, probably one of the biggest I’ve ever had,” Bartholomew said. “I think it all just happened because I’m swimming in a place where I feel completely happy and comfortable right now. Not only am I happy with the new coaching staff and comfortable with them, I’m very comfortable with my teammates. It’s not just the women’s team. It’s also the men’s team. I think I need to attribute my success to both teams, because I practice with both of them on a daily basis. The support here has been huge, and I think that has really helped.”

Bartholomew injured a disk in her back in December 2012, and that’s forced her to follow a modified training regimen. Still, she’s thriving under the coaching of the Busch brothers, with whom she works closely.

“I think that the sprint work and technique work and the drilling, all of it just has totally made my stroke more efficient, faster,” she said, “and I feel better in the water, because I can float better.”

The NCAA championships are March 20-22 in Minneapolis. To win an NCAA title “would be awesome, and I’ve love to do it,” Bartholomew said, “but I’m not gonna jinx it.”

International competition could be in Bartholomew’s future, too. The UVa women’s program has produced several Olympians, most recently Lauren Perdue, who won a gold medal at the London Games in 2012.

Augie Busch said he and Bartholomew “haven’t necessarily talked about long-course goals yet, but I’m sure [the Olympics] would kind of be the ultimate goal, and that’s not unrealistic, either.”

Bartholomew said: “A huge change in my mental process with swimming is that I’m realizing that I have a little bit more potential than I originally thought. When I look in the mirror, I just see myself, I don’t see this great athlete. But I’m starting to realize that, yeah, maybe it’s time to focus on the long-course aspect as well, because swimming outside of NCAAs is long course, so maybe I do need to shift my focus a little bit more, which I’m excited about.”

That will begin after the NCAA championships, Bartholomew said, “and I think the coaches will have a huge part in that, too, because I’ve never actually really trained long course, and last spring I wasn’t in the pool after NCAAs, because of my back. I just was on the elliptical, trying to figure out what to do with it all, and not having a coaching staff this summer to rely on was extremely tough.”

For now, she’s focused on her sophomore season — UVa competes Friday and Saturday in Christiansburg against Wisconsin and ACC rivals Miami and Virginia Tech — and on her studies. The events of last summer were stressful for Bartholomew, but she’s found happiness at the University.

“I love everything about this school,” said Bartholomew, who plans to major in foreign affairs. “It’s a great feeling to wake up every morning and know that you made the right decision. Just knowing that you found a family away from your actual family. Every time I walk by the Rotunda I get the goose bumps. The Grounds are just beautiful, and I’m very, very blessed to be here.”

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