by Katharine Palmer, Virginia Athletics Media Relations
It was something none of them had ever felt before. It was the right to be called the best. Champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Co-captains Stephanie Glover and Jessica Lewis along with fellow fourth-years Amber Bialas and Julie McLaughlin would have been the first women’s class in 11 years to leave without a ring. But the women emerged victorious in Atlanta Saturday night and claimed the first team championship since 2004; it was the sixth women’s title in school history and the 16th for the Virginia swimming and diving program.
The Cavalier women didn’t just scrape by to win the league crown, either. They soundly defeated second-place North Carolina, the defending champion, by 228 points, the largest margin of victory at the event since 1996.
“Going in, I was confident that we were going to win, but I thought it would be close,” Glover noted. “I wasn’t expecting us to dominate.”
“It was unbelievable how we performed,” Lewis said. “I didn’t expect it to be that great every day. We didn’t really hit a bump.”
Lewis and Glover took their place on the trophy stand twice, and in record-setting fashion, as part of the 800 free and 400 free relay teams. The 800 squad set both a conference and meet record with a NCAA A’ qualifying standard of 7:09.12; the 400 bunch also set a conference and meet record with a mark of 3:18.69. Additionally, Lewis anchored the winning 400 medley relay team that set a meet record in 3:38.27.
It was only the third time in school history the Cavaliers have brought home three relay titles and the first since 1999.
“For me, it was all kind of surreal,” Glover said of winning the title. “We had been working so hard for it and it really felt like four years in-the-making. For me it was the climax of four years.”
“Our team has never come together so well at one time,” Lewis added. “It was kind of perfect, or as close to it as you can get.”
In addition to the relay wins, Virginia also crowned three individual champions. First-year Liz Shaw broke the conference record in both the 200 butterfly and 200 individual medley. Her classmate, Claire Crippen, set a meet record in the 400 individual medley.
While Crippen admits is was an exciting moment for her to take her first individual crown, no moment at the ACC championship meet tops the captains receiving that trophy from ACC officials.
“That might have been the most excited I have been in my whole life,” Crippen said. “It was awesome to see the girls take the trophy and have them hold it up to show us, our parents and our fans.”
Head coach Mark Bernardino credits his fourth-years for immediately embracing the talented first-years from the moment they signed. He pointed out the immediate bond between the freshmen and the returning swimmers.
“What our seniors worked on from the time we finished signing our first-year class was making absolutely certain that group felt like they were an important and integral part of the team, from the beginning,” Bernardino said. “They never isolated them; they embraced that group of athletes and made them feel like they were upperclassmen, not first-years. That is probably the most significant and intelligent thing they did. They worked very hard from the outset to make sure this group knew they were a significant part of this team and it really paid off. That is true leadership.”
If you were to ask any of the first-year swimmers, they would agree with their coach. Crippen can’t imagine the team pulling off that kind of win without Glover and Lewis as their leaders.
“They are the greatest captains ever,” she said. “They are so focused. They are calm and collected in every aspect of their lives. It rubs off on everyone. They really keep us focused on the goals we are trying to accomplish. I think they are so great.”
All their hard work paid off when every event had been completed. It was time to celebrate.
“The best moment for me was probably the “Good Old Song” at the end,” Glover said. I always like to sing it because it’s fun, but to sing it after winning ACCs, I was so proud. It was just a great feeling. I almost passed out because I was out of breath.”
Glover and Lewis can’t celebrate for long. Both of them, along with several teammates, have already earned automatic berths to the NCAA Championships slated for March 20-22 in Columbus, Ohio. While they are sure to enjoy the ACC crown, they know there is still work to be done.
“This year is a little bit different, because we have such a larger group of girls, we have higher expectations,” Lewis said of preparing for the national meet. “We need to get this win out of our system, calm back down and realize we can do bigger and better things at NCAAs. We have to refocus. I don’t think our season ends here.”