Jan. 24, 2020

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Before enrolling at the University of Virginia last summer, Kate Douglass swam for coach Jamie Barone at the Chelsea Piers Aquatics Club in Connecticut. Barone no longer trains Douglass regularly, but he gets frequent updates from Todd DeSorbo, head coach of UVA’s swimming and diving programs.

“She does such insane things in practice that I text Jamie probably at least once a week to say, ‘Kate just did this in practice,’ ” DeSorbo said Thursday. “I texted him twice this week for two different things.”

Douglass’ feats aren’t limited to practice. Four months into her first college season, she already ranks among the greatest swimmers in the history of a perennially successful program. She’s broken four school records herself this season––in the 50-yard freestyle, 200-yard breaststroke, 100-yard butterfly and 200-yard individual medley––and she’s on the 200-yard medley relay team that hold the UVA and ACC records.

Her time (1:52.84) in the 200 IM is also an ACC record. Douglass ranks first nationally this season in the 200 breaststroke, second in the 200 IM, fourth in the 100 butterfly and fourth in the 50 freestyle. She’s been named ACC women’s swimmer of the week three times.

“You never know what you’re going get out of a freshman, no matter how talented they are,” DeSorbo said. “You talk to their coaches, and I talked to Kate’s a lot through the year and a half before she got here, and he was telling me the things that she would do in practice. It was definitely exceptional stuff, but nothing like what we’ve seen here.

“We knew she was good, but she’s taken off. And to be able to go lifetime best at some point in your first four months in college is pretty extreme. Beyond that, the fact that she broke our school records in 50 free, 200 breast, 100 fly, 200 IM––four very, very different disciplines––is just unreal. And she’s done things in practice that I never would have expected her to do. We expected her to be good and work hard, but it’s unreal.”

For Douglass, that she’s swimming well is no shock, “because on my club I swam well in-season, even when I wasn’t tapered, and I do well in practice,” she said. “But the times that I’m going have definitely surprised me. I’ve definitely improved a lot since I’ve gotten here.”

Douglass grew up in Pelham, N.Y., about 15 miles northeast of Manhattan. She had no ties to UVA, but her parents attended college in Virginia––her father at Hampden-Sydney, her mother at Sweet Briar––and “that was definitely a reason why I looked here,” said Douglass, whose other finalist was Stanford.

“My parents knew that UVA was a great school. They told me to look here, so I did, and I loved it. I just thought that UVA had a great balance between swimming and academics, and that was one of the big reasons I chose to come.”

She committed in February 2018, not long after the UVA women captured the ACC championship for the 10th time in 11 seasons. For all of the Cavaliers’ success, however, their best finish at the NCAA championships is fifth (2015 and again in 2016). The opportunity to help UVA in its pursuit of an NCAA title appealed to Douglass.

“It’s exciting to be part of building up to that,” she said.

The Wahoos close the regular season this weekend, with ACC dual meets against NC State (diving 1 p.m., swimming 4 p.m. Friday) and North Carolina (diving noon, swimming 3 p.m. Saturday) at the Aquatic and Fitness Center.

The UVA women are ranked sixth nationally and the men 17th. The Wolfpack is ranked No. 3 on the women’s side and No. 7 on the men’s. UNC’s women are ranked No. 15.

“It should be fun,” DeSorbo said.

That’s how Douglass, a graduate of Pelham Memorial High School, describes her first season as a college swimmer.

“I love coming to practice, because I love seeing my teammates and being with them,” said Douglass, who rooms with fellow first-year Maddie Donohoe. “They make it fun.”

Those teammates include such elite swimmers as Paige Madden, Morgan Hill, Caroline Gmelich and Megan Moroney.

“Training with them definitely helps,” Douglass said. “There are some times where they crush me. So that helps push me and motivate me to try harder and work harder.”

Douglass has fit in well with the Wahoos’ veterans, said DeSorbo, who acknowledged that the addition of a talented newcomer can sometimes hurt team chemistry.

“This can really go one of two directions,” he said. “You could potentially get the bitterness, jealousy side of it, where it causes a little bit of a rift. Or you can get the other side of it, where everybody knows this person is coming in and this person is really going to help the team, and they’re excited about it. They’re going to use her to try to elevate themselves as well.

“As far as I can tell, we’ve had nothing but the latter. I think like having athletes like Kate and Paige Madden in the pool, Morgan Hill, Ella Nelson, who’s another freshman, that helps elevate people. You just have everybody kind of stepping up a little bit more and chasing those types of athletes, and it helps bring everybody along a lot quicker. We’ve seen a lot of elevation amongst the team just generally speaking because those people are in the water.”

Douglass, who’s considering a major in computer science, has a competitive streak that isn’t always immediately evident.

“She is quiet, for sure,” DeSorbo said. “I think she’s confident to a degree, but definitely not overconfident. But I do know she likes to race. She likes to win, and she likes to race challenging opponents that help her go faster and help push her.

“I saw her have some amazing races in high school, and she’s not the kid that’s going to slap the water celebrating after a race because she’s so excited about what she did. She’ll look over at us, at the coaching staff or me, and have a big smile on her face if she does something fast. But she just kind of chugs along and has her goals and goes after them and keeps to herself about it.”

Douglass, who focused on club swimming in high school, said she’s enjoyed being part of a team.

“It’s very different from what I came from,” she said. “On a club team, you’re kind of swimming for yourself, because team points don’t really matter. But here you’re swimming for your team, and I think less of winning the race for myself and more of winning it for the team and getting the points. It’s made swimming more fun, I think.”

She’s a former member of the U.S. national junior team, and her potential is the sport appears unbounded. In 2016, Douglass qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in four events: the 50 freestyle, 100 and 200 breaststroke, and 200 IM. She could break through this year.

“I don’t know how much she believes me,” DeSorbo said, “but I’ve told her I think she can contend this year for an Olympic spot. She’s good enough, for sure. She’s just got to believe she’s good enough. I think she half-thinks she can and half-thinks she can’t.”

Douglass said: “Right now I’m trying to focus on NCAAs, then we have Olympic Trials at the end of June. I’m not really going into it with any expectations, but we’ll see what happens.”