By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE– Tyler Fenwick was on his honeymoon in Grand Cayman when, on the first day of December, University of Virginia swimmer Robby Giller made history in Athens, Ga.
Giller, a sophomore from Wilton, Conn., swam the 200-yard backstroke in a school-record 1:40.21 to finish third at the Georgia Fall Invitational. From his tropical island in the Caribbean, Fenwick followed the results on his phone.
“I was shocked,” recalled Fenwick, who’s in his second year as the Cavaliers’ associate head coach. “I had no idea he was going to go that fast.”
The school record may not be Giller’s last one at Virginia. He ranks second all-time at UVA in the 400-yard individual medley and fifth in the 500 freestyle.
In 2011, Matt McLean won the NCAA title in the 500 free, and his best time in that event (4:10.00) remains a UVA record. Giller’s best is 4:15.70, but he’s not even halfway through his college career.
“I absolutely think that Robby Giller has a shot to chase down that 4:10 flat,” said Fenwick, who knows McLean well.
Giller, who starred for the Wilton Wahoos club in Connecticut, expected to swim at UVA for a staff led by Augie Busch. But in July 2017 – on the eve of Giller’s first year at Virginia – Busch left to oversee the program at Arizona.
That didn’t alter Giller’s plans.
“It was definitely a little scary, losing the coaches when I was coming in,” he said. “But I was just like, ‘I didn’t commit to the coaches. I committed to the school.’ I fell in love with the team, I fell in love with the school. I wasn’t going to let the coaching staff really affect anything.
“Of course, I wanted to swim well in college, but swimming is pretty much over after college, except for the few that swim after college. So picking the best school possible was my motivation.”
In August 2017, UVA hired Todd DeSorbo as head coach of its swimming & diving programs. DeSorbo had been associate head coach at NC State, and one of his first hires was Fenwick, a William & Mary graduate who was associate head coach at Tennessee, from which he has a master’s, from 2012-17.
Giller has thrived under the new staff.
“With the time drops that I had last year and the improvement that I’ve had this year, I think it definitely worked out for the best,” he said of the coaching change.
Fenwick, who works with mid-distance and distance swimmers, knew little about the Virginia men’s team when he arrived in Charlottesville, “and I definitely did not know much about Robby Giller,” he said.
But Fenwick soon discovered that Giller was a major talent.
“I can remember it vividly, last year about a month into the season, looking at Robby and just saying to Todd, ‘I don’t know a thing about this kid, but I have a hunch his name is going to be all over our record board by the time it’s all said and done,’ ” Fenwick said.
As a high school senior, Giller “had made some pretty big drops,” Fenwick said, “but by no means were they an indicator of what he was going to do here. He was really a distance swimmer, a distance freestyler.”
At UVA, Giller began training for the 400 IM, and he “was like a fish in the water with that program,” Fenwick said. “He just latched on to everything, and you could see that he was going to be a good one. It didn’t take me long to see that.”
Giller’s weakest stroke is the breaststroke, he said, and that’s the case for most of the other Cavaliers who compete in the 400 IM, he said.
“We work on breaststroke a lot, just because so many of the best 400 IM-ers [nationally] are breaststrokers,” Giller said. “In order to hang with the top guys in the NCAA, you need to have mastered all four strokes.”
Fenwick said: “Every 400 IM-er is going to have some strokes that are better than others. We’ve decided to take the approach of, OK, that’s your least efficient stroke, but we’re going to hit it head on. We’re going to go after that stroke, and we’re going to spend a lot of time learning why we do what we do, what you should be looking for, and how to swim effectively in your position.”
Giller, who was born in New York, moved to Connecticut with his family when was in the seventh grade. As a senior at Wilton High School, he also considered North Carolina, William & Mary, Northwestern and Duke before choosing Virginia.
His grandparents retired to Williamsburg, “so I’ve been around the area a little,” Giller said. “I really liked it, and I like the weather, because Connecticut’s so cold. I definitely like seasons. Coming down to Virginia, I get some cold, but not nearly as bad as the winters [in New England].”
As a freshman in 2017-18, Giller experienced back problems that limited his training, in and out of the water. Even so, he placed fourth in the 500 free, fourth in the 200 back, and sixth in the 400 IM at the ACC championships.
“Robby’s performance at ACCs last year was really special when you look through that lens on things,” Fenwick said.
At the NCAA championships, Giller placed 15th in the 400 IM, which made him an honorable mention All-American. (Ted Schubert, a junior at UVA this season, finished 14th). Giller also competed in the 200 back and 500 free during his first trip to the NCAAs.
“I remember going to the meet and seeing all these guys that I’d only ever read about or seen videos of or seen on the TV,” Giller said. “I’d watched NCAAs so many times. It’s a big deal. It was really cool, but at the same time I had just come from ACCs, and that was one of the best meets of my life. So I really wanted to prove to myself that it [wasn’t a fluke] I went that fast at ACCs.
“I didn’t let [the pressure] affect me that much. My times in the 2-back and the 5-free were a little off of my times at ACCs, but I dropped three seconds in my 4-IM, so that’s what put me into scoring position.”
In late July, at the Phillips 66 national championships in Irvine, Calif., Giller made another statement about his potential. He placed ninth overall in the 200-meter backstroke, finishing in a school-record 1:58.01.
“I think that was really indicative of what’s to come,” Fenwick said. “He was nipping at the heels of some really accomplished backstrokers in the U.S.”
This year, Fenwick said, “I think Robby is ready to get to that next level, to challenge for finals at NCAAs, top-eight performances, maybe higher than that. But we focus on the process, we focus on day-to-day activity, and we have fun doing it.
“I don’t really put expectations on people. It’s almost like writing a symphony. The whole season – every practice, every day — you’re putting notes on a page, and at the end of the season, everyone’s symphony plays out, and they all play out differently. And it’s such a joy to sit back and just watch it.”
This year’s ACC meets are in Greensboro, N.C.: the women’s from Feb. 20 to Feb. 23, the men’s from Feb. 27 to March 2. Of more immediate concern to Giller and his teammates are the dual meets UVA will host this weekend at the Aquatic and Fitness Center.
Tennessee is the opponent Friday, with diving to start at 10 a.m. and swimming at 1 p.m. Virginia Tech comes to town Saturday. Diving starts at 9 a.m. and swimming at noon.
In the latest national rankings, UVA’s women are No. 11 and its men are No. 16. Tennessee’s women are No. 5 and its men are No. 11.
“We have a goal to never lose to Virginia Tech, whether it’s ACCs, NCAAs, or in a dual meet,” Giller said. “So that’s a big one for us. Tennessee is also big, because they’re very good competition in the NCAA. They’re a team that we have been behind in the past, but we’re definitely looking to be competitive with them.”
In 2018, the UVA women won the ACC title for the 10th time in 11 seasons. The UVA men placed third at the ACC meet, their best finish since 2013, when they won the conference title for the 14th time in 15 seasons.
The Cavaliers’ men are positioned to take another step forward this season, and “one of our big goals is to be more of a presence in the ACC and the NCAA,” Giller said. “Ultimately, winning is the biggest goal.”
Giller, who’s considering a major in foreign affairs, shares a house with six teammates: Sam Magnan, Gust Kouvaris, Bryce Keblish, Joe Clark, Dan Golczewski and Alex Albracht. They returned from holiday break on Dec. 28 and have enjoyed the relative quiet on and near Grounds.
The spring semester doesn’t start until Monday at UVA.
“To go get dinner or anything, you just walk in, you get your food and you leave,” Giller said. “It’s so easy. And it’s weird when everybody comes back and the population increases by 20,000 again and there’s traffic everywhere.
“I actually enjoy being here when there’s nobody else here, because you get the town to yourself. I was here over the summer, and it’s nice.”