What Motivates an Olympic Medalist Once They Return to College? These Hoos Know

March 14, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Todd DeSorbo walked to the corner of a room and cried tears of joy. In this moment, few people in the swimming world had it better than him.

It was July 29, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan, and DeSorbo, the University of Virginia head swimming coach who was spending a summer as an assistant for the U.S. Olympic swim team, had just watched two Wahoos earn Olympic medals in the same race.

“The U.S. national team director walked over to me,” DeSorbo said, “and she was like, ‘Are you happy, or sad because neither won gold?’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? We have two women from the same college team that just medaled in the same event at the Olympics? I couldn’t be more happy!’”

Alex Walsh, who won silver, and bronze-winner Kate Douglass were responsible for DeSorbo’s glee. The pair of then-19-year-old UVA student-athletes placed in the 200-meter individual medley final at Tokyo’s Summer Games. It was the first time in 37 years that two Americans medaled in that specific Olympic event.

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This all came four months after Walsh, then a first-year student, and Douglass, a second-year, helped UVA win the school’s first NCAA team swimming championship.

The duo, whom DeSorbo labeled “superheros,” could lay claim to being the most decorated students returning to Grounds for the 2021-22 academic year. But they had already done so much; what was left to do?

Portrait of swimming coach Todd DeSorbo

UVA head swimming coach Todd DeSorbo has the Cavaliers on the brink of their third consecutive national team championship. (Photo by Matt Riley, UVA Athletics)

Apparently, plenty. A year and a half later, Walsh and Douglass are leading the No. 1-ranked Cavaliers into the NCAA swimming championships, which begin Wednesday in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Hoos are seeking a third consecutive team national title, while Walsh, now a third-year, and Douglass, a fourth-year, can add to their eight individual or relay NCAA championships.

DeSorbo said a key to keeping his star swimmers focused has been the winning culture the UVA program has built since his arrival in 2017.

“I think some Olympians come back from the Olympics and have a little post-Olympic depression,” he said. “And we have such a great environment and such a great team that they came back and just got swallowed by them and really immersed themselves in the team goals of trying to put ourselves in a position to challenge for another national title.

“I think that’s really helped those two in particular come back and stay motivated."

Walsh, the owner of four school records and two Atlantic Coast Conference marks, said that while her Olympic medal is stored away, her national championship rings are placed on her bedside table.

It’s not that one means more to her than the other; it’s just that those rings were earned with her friends.

Portrait of Walsh and Douglass

Walsh and Douglass have established themselves as two of the best swimmers in the world. (Photos courtesy of UVA Athletics)

“I was able to reflect more during our celebrations as NCAA champions,” Walsh said. “It was really satisfying. The team effort and feeling like you’re a part of something bigger than just yourself, it just feels different.

“It was a lot more fun being with my team celebrating this huge accomplishment for us and for UVA. I love looking at those rings on my nightstand.”

The season following the Olympics, Douglass further established herself as one of the best young swimmers in the world. She was named the 2022 women’s swimmer of the year by both the ACC and the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America. The statistics major was also named the 2022 ACC Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

Douglass said something as simple as being back on Grounds in August 2021 was instrumental in her continued improvement as a swimmer.

“It was definitely nice to be able to come back and get into a routine and be back with my friends and my team and just feel like a normal college student,” said Douglass, who holds American records for fastest times in the 50-meter freestyle, 200-meter breaststroke and 100-meter butterfly. “It was fun that, yeah, we had this amazing experience and now we’re just normal college students again.”

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Coming back to Charlottesville, Walsh said, “re-centered me, which I needed.”

Douglass and Walsh have matching Olympic rings tattoos to represent their time in Tokyo. They’re both expected to return to the Olympic stage next summer when the Games are in Paris.

For now, though, they’re dialed in for one last ride together as Wahoos.

“I feel like the main goal for all of us is to try to win again, try to get our third national championship as a team,” Douglass said. “No matter how I do, if we accomplish that, I’ll be happy.”

“We like doing it for ourselves,” Walsh said. “But I know I also like doing it to represent UVA and the strength of this program.”

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications