By Jeff White (

In 2020, Alex Walsh left her hometown of Nashville, Tenn., and enrolled at the University of Virginia, where she joined a swimming & diving program that was on the brink of greatness.

Four years later, it’s a dynasty, thanks in no small part to the brilliance of Alex and her sister, Gretchen, who joined the program in the summer of 2021. Led by the record-setting Walshes, the Cavaliers captured their fourth consecutive NCAA women’s title Saturday night at the Gabrielsen Natatorium in Athens, Ga.

UVA totaled 527.5 points, to 441 for runner-up Texas. Virginia became only the third program ever to win four consecutive NCAA titles in this sport and the first since Stanford, which won five in a row from 1992 to ’96.

“I think realizing that only three teams in the whole nation have been able to achieve a feat like this really kind of puts it into perspective,” Alex Walsh told reporters. “It feels really cool to be a part of history and to be a part of UVA’s history, considering that our first national championship ever was [in 2021], and now we’re at four consecutive and are probably gonna go for a fifth next year.”

Gretchen Walsh echoed her sister’s comments. “I think it’s so cool to be making history like this and, like Alex said, I do think we’ll try to just keep the streak going … I don’t see the end in sight for Virginia for a little while. I’m really happy about this year and the past years that I’ve been on this team, and I’m looking forward to my last year as a Cavalier.”

Each Walsh sister won three individual events in Athens: the 50-yard freestyle, 100 butterfly and 100 free for Gretchen, and the 200 individual medley, 400 IM and 200 breaststroke for Alex.

Gretchen swam on the four UVA relay teams that won NCAA titles (200 medley, 200 freestyle, 400 medley and 400 freestyle), and Alex swam on three (200 freestyle, 400 medley and 400 freestyle).

“It’s wild, right?” UVA head coach Todd DeSorbo said. “Just to have two sisters to be Division I athletes period is pretty impressive. And then to be at the top and to be at the pinnacle and as elite as they are, both of them winning three individual titles, both of them setting NCAA records, [is incredible] …  It’s just mind-blowing to have one athlete that good, and then to have two that are sisters, I think it’s just unheard of.”

Gretchen Walsh

The Walshes aren’t the only standouts on this team, of course. In all, 13 Cavaliers earned first-team All-America honors at this meet: Alex Walsh, Gretchen Walsh, Aimee Canny, Cavan Gormsen, Abby Harter, Tess Howley, Anna Keating, Ella Nelson, Jasmine Nocentini, Carly Novelline, Maxine Parker, Reilly Tiltmann and diver Lizzy Kaye.

Nocentini, a graduate transfer from Northwestern, won the 100 breaststroke and swam on all four of the Wahoos’ champion relay teams.

Parker, a senior, swam on all four, too, and Novelline, a sophomore, swam on the 200 medley relay.

DeSorbo came to UVA in the summer of 2017 from NC State, where he’d been associate head coach. He figured then that, if everything went according to his plan, the Hoos would be in position to contend for an NCAA women’s championship by 2022.

Elite swimmers such as Paige Madden, who enrolled at UVA in the summer of 2017, and Kate Douglass, who arrived on Grounds two years later, accelerated the program’s ascent.

In 2018, the Cavaliers placed ninth at the NCAA meet, and they finished sixth in 2019. In 2020, Virginia would have entered the meet as one of the favorites, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of NCAAs.

The breakthrough came in 2021 in Greensboro, N.C., where the Hoos were crowned NCAA champions for the first time. That was no fluke, as they’ve proved since then.

“We’ve just got a great culture,” DeSorbo said. “It started five, six, seven, eight years ago, and it’s just kind of built.”

He singled out the leadership of the Cavaliers’ fourth- and fifth-year seniors, who include Alex Walsh, Nelson, Keating, Harter and Maddie Donohoe.

“It’s just an unbelievable group,” DeSorbo said.

The meet in Athens concluded with the 400 free relay. The Cavaliers went into the final race having locked up the team title, and DeSorbo told his swimmers on the relay—the Walshes, Nocentini and Parker—to “just have fun,” he said. “Maybe swim a little fast.”

His swimmers had another idea. “Gretchen said, ‘Let’s make sure we win and win by a lot,’ ” DeSorbo recalled, laughing. “She said it, and I’m like, ‘OK, go for it.’ And I’m actually surprised they went as fast as they did in that relay. It’s a long meet, everybody’s exhausted. I was shocked they came as close to the record as they did. It’s really impressive.”

Alex Walsh

As soon as the 2022-23 season ended, Virginia was touted as the favorite to win again in 2023-24. Those expectations never rattled the Cavaliers during the regular season, at the ACC Championships, or in Athens.

“I think they’ve kind of gotten used to performing at a really high level here,” DeSorbo said. “I think that the elevation of competition brings about the elevation of the team. The last couple of years, in particular last year, they set a lot of records, and so I think they’re just kind of getting used to that, and I think they want to try to continue to break barriers and keep breaking records and just see how fast they can end up going.”

In her four seasons as a Cavalier, Alex Walsh has won eight NCAA titles in individual events and 11 on relays. Her sister, in three seasons, has won six individual events and 12 relays.

Gretchen holds and has been part of eight NCAA records, and she credits the support of her teammates. “It’s really inspiring,” she said, “and that’s why I think

I’m able to do what I do.”

Due to the pandemic, Alex has another year of eligibility and could return to UVA and swim with her sister again next season. She hasn’t finalized her plans for 2024-25, but before the final session Saturday night Alex spoke to her teammates and thanked them, she said, “because this team has really changed my life and I could not be prouder. It’s just my greatest joy in life to be a Virginia Cavalier.”

DeSorbo feels the same way about coaching the Cavaliers.

“I think I say this every year, but they’re my heroes,” he said. “To watch them do what they do every day in practice, day in and day out, I’m glad that they get to see the fruits of their labor and be really successfully, because they work really, really hard.”

He turned to his team. “I love you guys. You’re my heroes. Go Hoos!”

 To receive Jeff White’s articles by email, click the appropriate box in this link to subscribe.