UVA Sports Comes Back a Winner in Year of COVID
As she neared the edge of the pool, University of Virginia Director of Athletics Carla Williams raised her arms above her head, hopped forward on her left foot, and jumped. Suspended for a heartbeat above the water, Williams tucked her legs, hugged her knees to her chest, and braced for splashdown.
This was not Williams’ first cannonball. She had taken the plunge before, when she worked at the University of Georgia. It’s how NCAA swimming titles are celebrated: fully clad and chlorinated.
This, though, was a different leap altogether, and far more poignant for Williams.
A year before, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Williams had to tell the UVA women’s swim team, one of the favorites to win a national title, that its season was over. Talented as the swimmers were, there was no guarantee the team would get another chance in 2021. A COVID-19 case or two at the wrong time could knock them out of contention.
Given all they went through to get there, seeing the team complete a comeback tale in March, when it won the program’s first NCAA title, was a highlight of the 2020–21 athletic year for Williams. “It was huge,” she says. “No one knows how difficult it was in February and March to just get to the championships COVID-free. That was really hard because there were surges everywhere during January and February, including on Grounds and in Charlottesville.
“There were hurdles that kept popping up in front of them, and they just kept clearing them.”
The same could be said of any number of UVA teams during a year unlike any other. Frequent testing helped—the Athletics Department administered 35,552 tests from July to May, and that doesn’t include the post-season testing done by the ACC and NCAA. All that, combined with rigorous adherence to protocols, enabled UVA to compete in more than 91 percent of its scheduled events, Williams says. At times, competing was a victory in itself, with COVID-19 case numbers spiking at various points in the 2020–21 school year. The department reported 222 positives, for a rate of 0.6 percent.
The football team, one of the first to return to Grounds last July, was one of just 17 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision programs to play 10 games without a postponement or cancellation because of its own coronavirus issues. Virginia’s players spent 23 weeks from July to December in virtual lockdown, unable to leave Grounds without permission. Their contact with family members was limited to brief periods after games.
After the last game of the regular season, players elected to take the team out of consideration for a bowl bid, a move coach Bronco Mendenhall supported.
“This team will always be special for how it handled competing during a pandemic,” he said in the press release announcing the end of the season.
The winter season showed just how precarious competing during a pandemic could be. The men’s basketball team won the ACC regular season title, only to be eliminated from the conference tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test. The team was forced to quarantine a week before arriving at the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis.
The women’s basketball team ended its season in January, after just five games. Six contests were postponed or canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. Other injuries left the team unable to practice or compete safely.
If winter was a grind, spring made gradual progress toward something resembling normalcy. As restrictions eased, fans at first trickled and then flooded back. The men’s lacrosse team, which opened its home schedule Feb. 6 in front of 250 fans at Klöckner Stadium, won its second straight NCAA title on Memorial Day in front of 14,816 in East Hartford, Connecticut. “Sort of normal,” Williams called it. By the time the baseball team made a surprise run to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, in June, “sort of normal” had given way to business as usual, with the stadium packed and all but mask-free.
The women’s soccer team’s securing a College Cup berth added yet another highlight to a busy spring season in which the winning came in waves. Emma Navarro (Col ’24) won the women’s singles title at the NCAA tennis championships. Michaela Meyer (Nurs ’22) ran away from the field to finish first in the 800 meters at the NCAA Track and Field championships.
The spring success propelled UVA to an 11th-place finish in the College Director’s Cup. It was UVA’s 14th consecutive top-25 finish in the national competition, which awards points based on a school’s post-season performance in 19 sports.
“In March (2020), when we first met with coaches, we didn’t know how long this was going to last,” Williams says. “And I told them that we needed to focus on doing more than just surviving, that our goal was to thrive and to come out of this better than our competitors.
“I think everyone took it to heart and did their best to actually perform to a high level as best as they could during so much uncertainty.”
Across all sports, no team had a better year than women’s swimming and diving, which used the NCAA championships as a mere warmup for bigger competition: the U.S. Olympic trials and the Tokyo Olympics. Four swimmers made the team and all won medals.
Paige Madden (Educ ’21) won a silver medal in the 4x200 meter freestyle relay. Alex Walsh (Col ’24) and Kate Douglass (Col ’23) won silver and bronze, respectively, in the 200 individual medley. Emma Weyant (Col ’24), who enrolled in the fall but delayed competing at UVA until 2021–22, took silver in the 400 IM. (For more results from UVA Olympians, see our ’Hoos in Tokyo story.)
Coach Todd DeSorbo served as an assistant coach for the Olympic team. Making a splash at the international level was the team’s goal all along, he says.
“Even though NCAA is a huge accomplishment, and it was a first and we had a blast, I think everybody’s eyes were always on Olympic trials,” DeSorbo says.
No athlete in any sport had a better year than Madden, who finished her career as an All-American in 14 events and won NCAA titles in the 200-, 500- and 1,650-yard freestyle, the most of any swimmer at the championships.
Madden also finished seventh in the 400-meter freestyle in Tokyo. Making the team in two events was quite the feat, considering that in between the NCAA championships and the Olympic trials she came down with COVID-19.
Madden says she was “devastated” when she learned she had tested positive, shortly after the NCAA meet in March. She told herself: “I’m done. My season’s over.”
Madden began feeling better after a couple of weeks but was worried about lingering effects.
“I’m a swimmer,” she says. “My lungs are probably my most important organ.”
Madden was already dealing with an asthma diagnosis that predated the pandemic. Her initial post-COVID workouts were discouraging, but after a few more weeks in the pool, she began regaining her form. A strong performance at a meet in Indianapolis gave her confidence heading into Trials, she says.
DeSorbo says he never doubted Madden would make the team. “If anyone could get COVID two months ago and still be very successful after that it would be Paige,” DeSorbo said after Trials. “All of our athletes work very, very hard, but Paige, more than anybody, she just puts so much into it that, honestly, we weren’t that concerned about her missing a week or two.”
Not after Madden and her teammates missed so much last year. Madden says not getting a chance to finish the season motivated her to take her performance to another level in 2021. “The fact that I didn’t get to show my cards in 2020, I knew I had a lot left in the tank. Going into 2021, I just wanted to prove that.”
The men’s lacrosse team, limited to six games in 2020, also had some unfinished business to take care of. The team won the NCAA title in 2019, but the abrupt ending to the 2020 season left its departing players with no sense of closure.
Among them was Dox Aitken (Col ’20), who finished his degree in foreign affairs in May and planned to use his final season of eligibility playing football at Villanova University.
Aitken enrolled at business school there in August, while practicing with the football team as a wide receiver. The team, which competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, had canceled its fall season and expected to play an abbreviated schedule in the spring of 2021.
That was the plan, anyway. But there was uncertainty over how many games the team would play. (The Wildcats scheduled six but wound up playing just four.)
Aitken knew Virginia was planning to play a full lacrosse season. He began considering the possibility of returning. “I’d kind of shied away from closing the book for sure,” he says. “But I wasn’t sure (returning) was even an option.
“I just kind of woke up one day and mustered the confidence to call coach (Lars) Tiffany.”
Tiffany welcomed Aitken back. Aitken enrolled in three classes that would transfer to his MBA program at Villanova—two in the Darden School of Business and one in the McIntire School of Commerce. That left him six hours shy of the credits needed to be eligible, however, so he added a class in the Batten School and another in the School of Education and Human Development.
“It was kind of a whirlwind,” he says. And that was merely in the classroom. On the field, Aitken had to shake off the rust. He says, “I kind of stunk for a month and a half.”
The team did not get off to such a blazing start, either, going 2-4 in the ACC. As with other Tiffany teams at UVA, however, it began finding its stride in May.
Wins over Bryant University and Georgetown University landed UVA in the Final Four in East Hartford. The Cavaliers won a 12-11 thriller over the University of North Carolina to advance to the championship game against previously unbeaten University of Maryland.
The game again came down to the final seconds. Goalkeeper Alex Rode (Educ ’21) saved a potential game-tying shot, preserving a 17-16 victory over Maryland.
Connor Shellenberger (Col ’23), who had four goals and two assists in the championship game, was voted tournament Most Outstanding Player.
Much of the team will be back next year. But for grad students Aitken and Jared Conners (Col ’20, Com ’21), who also chose to return, this was their final ride. Says Conners, “It’s definitely the reason you come back.”
Athletics Director Williams savored the championships as well, knowing how bleak the situation had looked at the start of the pandemic and marveling at all that UVA’s players and coaches had overcome.
“The athletic success is easily identifiable because everybody sees that,” she says. “But to know how difficult it was and to see that our staff figured it out, those were monumental successes that most people didn’t even see.”