Mei Christensen got a pretty good idea that something special might be in the cards early in her third year. As a rule, swimmers are fastest after a season’s worth of preparation and training—the ritual of tapering off the intensity of their workouts, shaving and wearing racing suits for big, end-of-season events is a virtual religion. Yet Christensen’s posted times in her first few dual meets were close to her postseason work from the year before.
“I was seeing some very impressive times even when I was sore and tired from that week’s practices,” says Christensen (Col ’10). “Eventually it dawned on me that if you can go those times [during the] season, you can expect much greater things to come in the postseason.”
Those great things came in bunches for Christensen and UVA during the ensuing postseason. She picked up Atlantic Coast Conference swimmer of the year honors at the ACC championships in February, setting two individual ACC records while helping to establish four new relay marks. The wins and records set the pace for the Cavaliers’ second straight ACC team title, which Christensen also got a hunch about several months before.
“We had the UVA [invitational meet] in December and all of us kind of thought this was going to be a [rough] meet—we were all basically racing ourselves in our own pool,” Christensen says. “I think maybe everyone on the whole team went a best time—it was phenomenal.”
Like many swimmers, Christensen, who was born in Singapore and raised in Northern Virginia, started putting in long hours in the pool well before ninth grade. That early start helped her become a star as a high school swimmer, when she led South Lakes in Reston, Va., to a team state title and earned an invitation to join the Cavaliers. After two years as a backstroke and medley relay specialist at UVA, she improved her freestyle dramatically during the offseason, opening the door to some new chances to help the Cavaliers.
“My freestyle really improved, so [UVA coach] Mark [Bernardino] and I saw that as an opportunity to be on relays,” Christensen says.
Adding the freestyle relays was a major leap forward for Christensen, but it came the way most accomplishments in swimming do—through long stretches in the pool and weight room.
“The amount of work you put in makes swimming a really difficult sport—you have to really be dedicated and put in the number of hours necessary,” Christensen says. “It’s definitely worth it to see your thousands of hours pay off.”
Christensen, who is working on an elementary education concentration in the Curry School in conjunction with her psychology major, worked her way onto the Cavaliers’ 200 and 400 relay teams, which set the stage for the ACC record windfall at the conference championships.
It mattered little that Christensen had to handle a staggering load during the ACC meet, racing in six different events and individual preliminaries over the course of the three-day event.
“They actually planned it out well—the way it worked out I had the first and the last race every day,” Christensen says. “I had plenty of time to rest.”
She followed her ACC record-setting explosion with an impressive encore at the NCAA championships a month later. She snagged All-American honors in the 100 backstroke, 200 back and 400 medley relay, as well as honorable mention All-American honors in the 200 medley, 200 freestyle and 400 free relays.
Christensen credits a big portion of those accomplishments to Bernardino, who was a big reason she committed to the Cavaliers out of Northern Virginia, a swimming hotbed.
“He’s the best at getting at a swimmer’s potential,” Christensen says. “He really gets to know you, and that shows. He’s had how many decades of ACC championships?”
The UVA program’s focus on team championships—the women’s and men’s teams have won eight and 12 ACC titles, respectively—suits Christensen just fine. She is a particularly team-oriented swimmer in a sport that often celebrates solo accomplishments. Individual goals seem important to her only as they impact the team in the long run, like her improvements in freestyle. Her main goal for the season ahead is straightforward, and matches that team-first focus.
“No women’s team has ever won three ACC championships in a row,” Christensen says. “So we want to be the first.”