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Aug. 12, 2016

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It has been said that one does not truly appreciate a big life event until time has passed and it can be looked back on with perspective. Former Virginia swimming standout and Olympic gold medalist Melanie (Valerio) Thomas (Class of 1991) agrees wholeheartedly with that assessment.

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, Thomas captured gold as part of Team USA women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay team, becoming the first Cavalier swimmer to earn Olympic gold. She is one of four Cavalier swimmers to win gold and Virginia has had at least one swimmer at every Summer Olympiad since Thomas competed in 1996.

Twenty years later, as the Rio Olympic Games are underway, Thomas looks back on that day with that aforementioned perspective.

“I don’t think I will ever forget it,” Thomas said. “I would not say that it was the ultimate moment in life because I am married now and as you get older your priorities change. I have to say that when you are younger, you just do not realize how important certain things are, and watching the (U.S. Olympic) trials a couple weeks ago, it really made me appreciate even more what I had accomplished. I think it maybe took 20 years for me to come full-circle and truly appreciated what I did.”

Thomas was in attendance in Omaha, Neb., as USA Swimming celebrated the 20-year anniversaries of the Olympic teams at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials. Thomas was part of about 15 members of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team who made the journey to Omaha, but she was more excited about seeing the 1976 team.

“1976 had the biggest showing (of the anniversary teams),” Thomas said. “As far as being a fan, 1976 was my favorite Olympics, so I just loved being around all of those class names that I grew up kind of worshipping. It was like being a kid in a candy store.”

The 1976 team was not the only team Thomas was happy about seeing at the trials. She was excited to see her alma mater well-represented.

“It was really great to see so many UVA caps at trials,” she said. “There were only a few of us way back when, so it is really cool to see them all now and see Virginia have a presence at these meets.”

Another reason she is happy to see Virginia succeed on the big stage is some familiar faces coaching the Cavaliers. After graduating from UVA in 1991 (and returning in 1998 after the World Championships to pursue a master’s degree), Thomas trained in south Florida for the 1992 trials and then moved west to train with the University of Arizona coaching staff for the 1996 trials.

Originally from Youngstown, Ohio, Thomas had a connection to the head coach at Arizona, Frank Busch, who is the father of current UVA head coach Augie Busch and assistant coach Sam Busch.

“Frank was a big reason I went out to Arizona to train,” Thomas said. “Augie was pretty young and was still in college playing volleyball, and Sammy was really young back then. I don’t even think they were born back in the Ohio days and to see them (coaching at UVA) is crazy. It’s a really small world.”

One member of the current UVA team Thomas has become closer to is Leah Smith, who, in front of Thomas and the sold-out crowd at the CenturyLink Center, qualified for the Olympics in three events, the 400- and 800-meter freestyle and the 4x200m free relay.

“I remember I was training to make trials, which I did not make but came really close at age 47, and saw a bunch of UVA kids at a swim meet in Austin, Texas, and Leah was the one that everyone knew, so I introduced myself,” Thomas recalled. “She obviously didn’t know who I was and had no reason to, my records are long gone, so when I explained that I swam at the Olympics, she was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ and it was really funny. We have kept in touch, so when I saw her at trials, I met her parents and that was very nice. Since I was older when I made the Olympics and was no longer at UVA, I told her she is so lucky to still be in school and also kept teasing her that she needed to live on the Lawn.”

Looking back at Thomas’ time in Charlottesville, living on the Lawn might be the only thing on which she missed out. Growing up in Ohio, Thomas went to a private school in Cleveland and it was an assistant coach who mentioned UVA as a possibility for her.

“I was really good in high school for Ohio swimming, but it was a small pond that I was swimming in,” Thomas said. “I looked at some other big schools like UCLA and Florida, but Virginia had pretty much everything I wanted. It was six hours from home, so my parents could watch me swim, which was very important. I was going to get a great education and a scholarship was very important for my mom and dad. And it had a swim team where I was not going to walk in and be the top dog, but would have the opportunity to work my way up to being the top dog.”

In 1988, she was a six-event All-American as the Virginia women finished seventh at the NCAA Championships, the program’s best finish until UVA’s back-to-back fifth-place finishes in 2015 and 2016. Thomas was also part of the first Cavalier women’s team to win an Atlantic Coast Conference Swimming and Diving Championship in 1990.

During her UVA career she was a seven-time ACC champion and the league’s swimmer of the year in 1990.

“In 1988, I remember coming back to school and getting recognition from the athletic department and such, but for whatever reason I remember winning ACCs in 1990 a lot more. That whole team, that is what we wanted and what we were going after, and we got it. I still have my ring and wear it every once in a while. It was a big deal around Grounds and I am still proud of it. I would not change anything about my experience at UVA. It was exactly what I wanted in my college career and I am so proud that I went to school there, it was perfect.”

Valerio’s Olympic gold was just start of numerous achievements in her athletic career. She was the first female swimmer sponsored by NIKE, the first ever TIMEX Fitness Director and the first Ironman athlete sponsored by a rock band – Cheap Trick. (Read more about her athletic achievements here)

When she looks at the where the program was when she started at UVA and to where it is now, back-to-back program-best fifth-place finishes at the NCAA Championships and nine-consecutive ACC Championships, Thomas is proud knowing that she was a part of the program’s rise to conference and national prominence.

“It does make me proud when I look back at where we were and where they are now,” Thomas said. “I wish we had that (success) way back then, but I am still thankful for what we had. I am really proud of the current group of kids, especially living in the west. I live in Los Angeles and when you used to say ‘UVA’ a few people would know what were you were talking about, but now in sports, you do not have to do that anymore, which is really great.

“I have been training at USC and this year, Virginia beat the Trojans at NCAAs and I was very proud to wear my UVA gear the next day to practice! I am so glad that it is finally getting the recognition that it deserves as far as swimming goes for both the men and women.”

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