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Dec. 12, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — In between official visits to two other schools, swimmer Caitlin Cooper sandwiched a trip to the University of Virginia in the summer of 2013. This visit was unofficial, which meant Cooper and her mother had to pay for their plane fare from Atlanta, and it took place on a quiet weekday afternoon on Grounds.

“There was really nothing special going on,” Cooper recalled. “I saw the Corner. I got lunch at Take It Away, sat on the steps of the Rotunda for a little bit, and then headed over to the [Aquatic and Fitness Center]. I met some of the team members, and that was about it.”

Cooper, who took official visits to Arizona, UCLA, North Carolina and Texas, spent only about six hours at UVA on that trip, but that was enough.

“I was like, `That’s where I want to go,’ ” Cooper said.

A graduate of Woodward Academy outside Atlanta, Cooper enrolled at UVA in 2014. She’s since blossomed into one of the best sprinters in the history of the Virginia women’s program.

When Cooper committed, Augie Busch had just taken over as head coach of the Cavaliers’ swimming & diving programs. Busch stayed at UVA for four years before leaving in July for Arizona, his alma mater.

His successor, Todd DeSorbo, won over the Cavaliers’ returning swimmers immediately. (Jason Glorius, who coached UVA’s divers during Busch’s tenure, remains in that role under DeSorbo.)

“It’s been really great,” said Cooper, a senior who’s on track to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “It’s a lot better than I ever thought it could be, and we’re having so much fun. The entire team, I know, is enjoying themselves.”

Cooper, who was born and raised in Atlanta, competed in her home state early this month, with memorable results.

At the UGA Fall Invite in Athens — a meet for which she and her teammates did not taper, the practice by which swimmers reduce their training workloads ahead of races — Cooper set the program record in the 50-yard freestyle, with a time of 21.86 seconds. She was also part of the foursome that set a program record in the 400-yard freestyle relay (3:12:06). Her parents were in Athens to cheer her on.

“I’m really excited for myself and the entire team going forward,” said Cooper, whose mother swam at the University of Pennsylvania. “I can’t wait for ACCs and NCAAs. I think we came out of [Athens] kind of shocked and surprised in a good way, and it’s only a confidence-booster for what we can do.”

DeSorbo agreed.

“Any time you can break a school record at midseason with the way that we prepare for things, or even just do a lifetime best, whether it’s a school record or not, it’s a big accomplishment,” he said. “And I think it provides our coaching staff as well as the athletes a lot of confidence that the training’s going well and the end of the season can be really good.

“In Caitlin’s case, to go under 22 seconds in the 50, she’s the first female in the history of our program to do that. I don’t know that I would have expected it on Day One, back in August, but going into the competition I definitely expected it. She’s been training and competing at a really high level all semester, so it was not a surprise at all.”

DeSorbo came to UVA from NC State, where he was the associate head coach in a program that swept the ACC men’s and women’s titles in 2016-17. He’s known for his work with sprinters, and he tried unsuccessfully in 2013 to persuade Cooper to join the Wolfpack.

He didn’t follow Cooper’s college career closely before he arrived in Charlottesville, DeSorbo said, “but I definitely knew that she was one of UVA’s top sprinters and had been since she’d been at UVA, so I was definitely excited to have the opportunity to work with her. She’s exceeded any expectation. She’s been more driven that I probably would have hoped for. She’s been more disciplined, works really hard, and on the 200-medley relay she anchored down in Athens, she had the fastest split of any female I’ve ever coached.”

DeSorbo introduced new training methods that the Wahoos have embraced, Cooper said. UVA’s swimmers do less yardage in practice than they did under Busch.

“I think I’m adapting really well to the new training style,” Cooper said. “Every single lap we do is intense and has so much focus. It’s definitely quality over quantity. Every single stroke we’re paying attention to that.”

The men’s team, which is ranked No. 21 nationally, has only two seniors. The 11th-ranked UVA women have a large senior class.

“I’m already thinking about how much we’re going to miss them next year, as far as their talent, ability and their leadership,” DeSorbo said.

The new coaching staff includes, in addition to DeSorbo, associate head coach Tyler Fenwick and assistants Blaire Bachman and Wes Foltz.

That Cooper and the Cavaliers’ other seniors greeted the new coaches with such enthusiasm “made that transition really easy,” DeSorbo said.

“The fact that they only have one year left, and really less than a year, has made it even easier, because those fourth-years are even more focused and disciplined and have even more drive than probably most seniors might have, to be honest.

“A lot of seniors are just kind of ready to get done, [but UVA’s fourth-years] were just hungry for more.”

The energy of the coaching staff is infectious, Cooper said. “We kind of thought maybe it would dwindle down after the first couple weeks that we were here. We just thought maybe they were super excited [about the start of the semester], but that’s just who they are. They bring so much energy every single day. They’re always excited about something.”

This is Cooper’s first season at UVA without Leah Smith, the Olympic gold-medalist and four-time NCAA champion who graduated last spring.

“I love Leah,” Cooper said. “She’s hilarious. She brings a ton of energy to the pool deck every day. I grew really close with her, and I learned a lot. She carries herself in a really positive manner and definitely affects people around her in a positive way. Just watching her before she swims or during practice, she has a super light and airy attitude, so I’d say it helped the entire team learn to calm down a little bit before we race.”

Cooper, whose twin brother, Taylor, attends Miami University in Ohio, lives with swimmers Cece Williams and Jennifer Marrkand and diver Corey Johnson. Cooper and Williams are two of the Cavaliers’ captains for 2017-18, along with Vivian Tafuto, Luke Georgiadis and Bryce Keblish.

“Those five have proven they’re the right people for the job,” DeSorbo said. “They proved that even before I stepped on Grounds.”

Cooper isn’t the most loquacious member of the team, but she’s “gotten more comfortable and talkative every year,” she said.

DeSorbo said: “I think you need different personalities to balance each other out on the frontline there. Caitlin is definitely more of a lead-by-example type, which you always need as well.”

UVA’s season resumes Jan. 5 with a dual meet at Tennessee. The ACC championships are in February, in Greensboro, North Carolina. The NCAA women’s championships will follow in March, in Columbus, Ohio.

Cooper has received All-America honorable mention four times — twice as a freshman, once as a sophomore and once last season — and was a three-time All-American in 2015-16.

Her best event remains the 50 free.

“She’s dropped seven-tenths [of a second] in the 100 this year as well, so that’s coming along, but she’s definitely better at the 50 than the 100,” DeSorbo said. “For her to score [at the NCAA meet] in the 100, she’s going to have to improve a fair amount more between now and March. Her 50 is already in scoring range. So if she just matches what she did, she’s going to score for us individually in the 50.”

Cooper is undecided about what she’ll do after graduating, but she’s planning to wrap up her competitive swimming career in March. She’s eager to finish with a flourish in Columbus.

“Instead of tapering for ACCs,” Cooper said, “I think I’m just going to try to taper for NCAAs and train through ACCs in order to peak at NCAAs.”

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