By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Zach Fong was still a senior at Moorestown High School in New Jersey when, in February 2015, the University of Virginia men’s swimming & diving program dipped to a once-unimaginable level.
The Cavaliers, who in 2013 captured their sixth straight ACC title, finished eighth at the conference meet two years later. The UVA women, meanwhile, continued to dominate the ACC, winning their eighth straight conference championship in 2015 (and ninth straight last year).
Fong had signed a letter of intent with UVA in November 2014, and even then “it was apparent we weren’t in an awesome spot,” he recalled. But the coaching staff’s recruiting pitch to Fong and others in his class had included a challenge.
“It was something that they talked to us about: `You guys are going to be part of this resurgence. You’re going to be part of a movement coming back towards what this program has always stood for,’ ” Fong said. “And it obviously excited a lot of us. We had this really awesome recruiting class. We understood that we were a team that had this incredible history of winning and had fallen off in [recent] years.”
The gap between Virginia’s programs is closing. The Wahoos entered 2017 ranked fourth nationally on the women’s side and 15th on the men’s. Both swimming teams return to action this weekend at the Aquatic & Fitness Center, where, as part of the Commonwealth Clash, UVA hosts Virginia Tech in an ACC dual meet Friday and Saturday.
“It’s not really them falling down,” Fong said of the women. “It’s us moving back up. We’re on our way back up.”
Led by Leah Smith, who’s now a senior, the UVA women placed fifth at the NCAAs championships in 2015 and again last year.
“Obviously you’re happy for them,” Fong said. “We train with them every day and they’re our closest friends. We feel like we’re one team. We train together, we lift together, we do everything together.”
Still, he acknowledged, the men’s struggles during the same period were “not fun. We want to be winning too, which has been a lot of motivation. It’s certainly something that pushes us.”
Augie Busch took over as the head coach of UVA’s swimming & diving programs in the summer of 2013. “I realized pretty quickly that we weren’t nearly as talented on the men’s side as we were on the women’s,” Busch recalled, and attrition in the men’s program exacerbated the situation.
In 2013-14, the men finished fourth at the ACC championships, then fell further in Busch’s second year. But he was confident better days were coming for the men’s program, and there were clear signs of progress in 2015-16.
“The tide started to turn midway through last year,” Busch said, in part because of an outstanding first-year class led by Fong.
“We had a pretty solid January,” Busch recalled. “Our ACC meet last year on the men’s side was actually pretty good, even though we only got sixth place. And then we had a really good summer, both the men and the women.”
“We hit some home runs with both the first- and second-year classes,” Busch said.
At the prestigious Georgia Fall Invitational in early December, the UVA women placed third and the men fourth.
“I can imagine Augie was sitting there watching [in Athens] and thinking, `This is what was supposed to happen,’ ” Fong said.
Fong already ranks second all-time at UVA in the 200-yard butterfly and fifth in the 100 fly, and he also competes in the 200 IM and 400 IM. In 2015-16, he was one of two UVA men to qualify for the NCAA championships, along with Yannick Kaeser.
At the NCAA meet in Atlanta, Fong placed 26th in the 200 fly. Kaeser, who was a senior in 2015-16, competed in the 100 breaststroke and 200 breaststroke. He finished seventh in the 200 to earn All-America honors.
“Having Yannick there was unbelievable for me,” Fong said. “It was so helpful. And the coaches said, `Zach, one of your main goals at this meet is to keep Yannick calm. Be yourself and just let him have fun.’ Because the year before he was the only swimmer [from the UVA men’s team at NCAAs], and he just sat there thinking about himself.
“So we just had fun. It was obviously not as great as it would be if we had a bunch of people, like we will this year, but it was really cool. And it was great to see Yannick, who had been good for so many years, finally be an All-American, to see how he did that and how he handled the pressure.”
Fong, who was born in Detroit, moved with his family to South Jersey when he was an infant and has lived there ever since.
His father, Peter Fong, grew up in the D.C. area. The elder Fong dreamed of attending UVA but ended up at Villanova, where he earned a degree in engineering and, later, an MBA. Zach and his dad attended the Virginia-Villanova men’s basketball game at John Paul Jones Arena together in December 2015.
The Cavaliers prevailed that day, “and I got to rub it in his face a little bit,” Zach recalled, smiling.
Zach has a younger brother and younger sister, and they’re accomplished swimmers too. (His sister is a Villanova recruit.) All three were introduced to the sport at an early age.
“We all just love the water,” Zach said.
Like his siblings, he grew up competing for the elite Jersey Wahoos club, “so I’ve been a Wahoo for years,” Fong said. “The motto always is, if you put in the work at Jersey Wahoos, you’re going to become a good swimmer, and it’s paid off for all three of us.”
In the spring of 2015, Fong was a captain of the United States junior squad that competed at the Irish Open in Dublin. That experience, however memorable, didn’t prepare him for what awaited him at last year’s NCAA championships.
“I walk in the door [at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center], and the crowd is packed, it’s full,” Fong recalled. “The fastest swimmers in the world are there, and you’re like, `Wow.’ ”
Fong committed to UVA early in his senior year at Moorestown High after seriously considering Auburn, North Carolina, Michigan State and Penn State.
“I kind of looked a little bit out toward the West Coast originally, but I didn’t really want to be that far away from my family, my little brother or little sister,” Fong said, “and I liked the fact that [UVA] was a really nice distance away, and if I needed to get home, I could get home easily.
“But more than anything, I got here on my recruiting trip and just fit in. The team was awesome, the program had its history, I loved the coaching staff. It was one of those things, it’s corny, but it felt right when I got here.”
Fong made an immediate impact in a program determined to return to national prominence.
“He’s outgoing, he’s confident, he’s really a sweet kid,” Busch said. “He’s got everybody’s respect. We saw that in the recruiting process.”
When members of the men’s team voted last spring on captains for 2016-17, Busch said, Fong was third overall. Never mind that he was still in his first year at UVA. And so in the fall, when Busch decided to create a leadership council for the team, Fong was the natural choice to represent the second-year class.
“Zach is a born leader,” Busch said.
“It’s something really special,” said Fong, who’s applying to UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. “The way the leadership council is set up, it’s really good in the way that it helps the whole team have a voice.”
The ACC men’s championships start Feb. 27 and run through March 2 in Atlanta. The Cavaliers’ goal, as always, is to capture the conference title. They may not reach that objective this year, Fong said, but “the confidence that we have in ourselves and in each other is light years ahead, I know, of even what it was last year.”