By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — As University of Virginia sophomore Leah Smith shot through the water Saturday, closing in on her second NCAA swimming title, teammate Courtney Bartholomew wept at the Greensboro (N.C.) Aquatic Center.
Rest assured, they were tears of joy.
“It was just elation for her,” Bartholomew recalled this week. “I cried the entire last 150 of that mile she swam, just because I was so proud and so happy for her, just to know that all of her hard work paid off.”
With her victory in the 1,650-yard freestyle, Smith, a sophomore from Pittsburgh, became the first UVa woman to win two NCAA titles in the same meet. Two days earlier, she’d won the 500 freestyle, after which Smith, still in the water, had looked over at assistant coach Cory Chitwood.
Chitwood, who works with the Wahoos’ distance swimmers, won three NCAA titles during his career at Arizona.
“Just knowing that we had that special connection was really cool,” Smith said. “He told me afterward he was really proud of me, and I just felt like that was a really cool moment. That’s what was going through my mind, and that I could see the happiness on my teammates’ faces was a really special moment for me too.”
The only other Cavalier to have won an NCAA title in women’s swimming is Cara Lane, who captured the 1,500-meter free in 2000 and the 1,650-yard free in 2001.
As a freshman, Smith entered the NCAA meet as the top seed in the 500, only to place ninth in the event. She was third in the 1,650 (and 17th in the 200 free) and helped Virginia place fifth in the 800 free relay in 2014, but she came away dissatisfied with her performance.
“That really fueled me the past year,” Smith said.
She entered her second NCAA meet seeded No. 2, behind California’s Cierra Runge, in both the 500 and 1,650, but Smith felt more comfortable and more confident. Her performance in Greensboro reflected that.
During the 500 prelims Thursday, Smith broke the NCAA record with a time of 4:30.37, which ranks No. 2 in the history of the event.
“I think being a freshman at the NCAA championships is just a really scary thing, because there’s nothing really that can prepare you for it,” Smith said. “It’s not like Olympic Trials. It’s not like any other club meet that you’ve ever been to, or high school meet, and it’s such a different stage. So when I went in this year I felt so much more relaxed, and just being a second-year you’re just a lot more comfortable with your teammates, and you have a lot more friends at the championships. So I know a lot of girls from the other teams now, and that helps a lot.”
Smith also earned All-America honors in the 200 free, placing seventh in an event that’s especially challenging for a distance swimmer.
“You have one of the best sprinters in [Stanford’s] Simone Manuel,” Smith said. “She swims the 50, 100 and 200. So she kind of goes up to my lowest event. The 200 is a cool race, because you have sprinters going up to it, and distance swimmers going down, and the way that sprinters and distance swimmers swim the 200 is very different.”
In the team standings, UVa finished fifth, totaling 229 points, two fewer than fourth-place Texas A&M. Before this year, the Cavaliers’ best finish at NCAAs was seventh, in 1988.
“I can’t even put into words how incredibly proud of this group of women I am,” Bartholomew said. “We really came together this year, and we set our goals the first week of school and said, `We want to be the best UVa women’s swim and dive team we’ve ever had.’ So to go out and get fifth in the nation was just a huge accomplishment for us. I think it just shows how focused we were on that goal all season long.”
Standouts abounded for the `Hoos in Greensboro. Heading into the meet, UVa women had won two individual titles and posted four second-place finishes all-time at the NCAA championships. They came away with two more individual titles and four more second-places finishes.
Bartholomew, a junior from Holland, Mich., placed second in both the 100 and 200 backstroke, and she finished fifth in the 200 IM. Laura Simon, a sophomore from Simmern, Germany, was NCAA runner-up in the 200 breaststroke and placed fourth in the 100 breaststroke.
Moreover, Bartholomew, Simon, senior Ellen Williamson and sophomore Ellen Thomas finished second in the 400 medley relay, in a school-record time of 3:26.42. Led by Manuel, who swam the final leg, Stanford edged UVa by an impossibly slim margin, touching in 3:26.41.
Those are the two fastest times in the history of the event.
When Williamson finished the third leg, the butterfly, and Thomas dived in for the freestyle, the Cavaliers “were so far ahead that Laura Simon and I just looked at each other, and we were like, `We just won a national championship,’ ” Bartholomew recalled.
She smiled. “Guess that kind of jinxed it, because I totally didn’t think Simone Manuel would go [so] ridiculously fast. That’s not to say that Ellen Thomas did not have the swim of her life, because she did. You couldn’t have asked anything more out of her.”
In the 200 medley relay, Bartholomew, Simon, Williamson and Thomas placed fourth in Greensboro.
Smith and Bartholomew became the third and fourth women from UVa to finish in the top 8 in three individual events at the same NCAA meet.
In the 200 back, Bartholomew set UVa and ACC records with a time of 1:49.35. Still, she said, “I was a little bit disappointed with how I did, just personally. I had some bigger goals than I accomplished this past weekend.”
At the NCAA championships in 2014, Bartholomew finished third in the 200 back and fifth in the 100 back and helped the Cavaliers place seventh in the 200 medley relay. She came to Greensboro hoping to win at least one individual title, but Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin and Cal teammate Rachel Bootsma, respectively, edged Bartholomew in the 200 and 100 back.
“I hate to lose,” Bartholomew said. “It’s not that I love to win. It’s that I hate to lose.”
This was the Cavaliers’ second season under head coach Augie Busch, and they won their eighth straight ACC title. Coming off a historic performance at the NCAA meet, the `Hoos are eager to continue their ascent in 2015-16.
“Augie said that the standard has been set at national championships, and that’s what we want to work for,” Smith said.
Bartholomew said: “I think the only way to get better as a program is to set that bar higher each time. The most painful part of the whole weekend for me, not even the 100 back or the 200 back, was that we lost [fourth place] to Texas A&M by two points.
“Two points in swimming is not a lot. We could have made that up Day 1, Day 2, somewhere Day 3. So just knowing that we can do better next year and we can score more points, because we do have that core group returning, plus we have some wonderful first-years that’ll be coming in next year, it’s just very exciting.”