With its recent second-place finish at NCAA Championships, the NC State women’s swim team dominated the 2020-21 season under head coach Braden Holloway.
Along the way, personal records were lowered and awards were garnered, but one milestone in particular felt especially sweet: the Wolfpack’s first-ever NCAA swimming title in the 400-yard medley relay, the first of five national titles that the team would pick up that weekend.
Sophomore Katharine Berkoff, juniors Sophie Hansson and Kylee Alons and senior Julia Poole broke the program, NCAA and U.S. Open records to post a 3:24.59 on the second night of competition.
Although NC State was off to a slow start on Wednesday night due to some last-minute changes in the 800-yard freestyle relay lineup, the winning relay gave the team the momentum it needed heading into the rest of the meet.
“I, to this day, am still speechless about it,” Poole said. “I think that just set us up for the weekend we had and the finish that we had, and then obviously just watching Sophie and Katharine get their individual titles … we had so much fun there.”
Despite the steady progress and solid swims the Wolfpack have put up all season, it was only after popular swimming website SwimSwam scored the psych sheets for NCAAs that the team began to really believe in itself and its ability to score well at such a high-stakes meet.
“I think when we all figured out that we were ranked second, we started suddenly believing in ourselves a lot more than we already had,” Alons said. “Which was really cool, just to see everyone get so excited and realize that we’re a really good team.”
Heading into the meet, the team’s main goal was to finish fourth overall — at the NCAAs, the top four teams win trophies. Before this year, the highest the women’s swim team had ever placed was sixth.
“When we set this goal, it seemed really monumental, and it seemed like it’d be really hard to just get fourth,” Alons said. “So to come to the end of the year and then exceed it, I think ... we proved [to] ourselves that we could exceed our expectations.”
Not only did the Wolfpack pick up a second-place finish overall and a national record, but the team wrapped up the meet with four more national titles: Hansson’s 100- and 200-yard breaststroke, Berkoff’s 100-yard backstroke and the 200-yard medley relay.
According to Berkoff, watching Hansson’s 100-yard breaststroke victory right before her swim set the tone for the rest of the night and gave her the momentum she needed heading into the 100-yard backstroke.
“Seeing Sophie win right before my 100 back, it just made me so excited, and then I knew I wanted to win too, right after she did,” Berkoff said. “And then we did it again in the [200 medley] relay that night, and it was just so cool too. It felt normal by the end. We hadn’t won before, but then it just became a standard.”
As with all sporting events over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted swim meets — especially championship events — in ways big and small. Although the team’s talent in the pool made for an unforgettable season, there was some uncertainty that it would be able to uphold the scoring predictions at NCAAs, given the current climate.
“This year, it’s been very difficult with dual meets and other meets that, even though we watch other invitationals, they’re not as big as they usually are,” Hansson said. “To actually go through the meet and stay on the same place and come out second, I think that’s very big because it’s been a very special year, and we haven’t got a lot of changes to show what we got.”
Looking ahead to the next season, all four women on the record-breaking relay will be returning for another year with NC State. Poole, who will be graduating in May, is planning to wrap up her NCAA eligibility as a graduate student.
As for this summer’s Olympic trials and other pro swimming ventures, a lot of the team’s plans are up in the air. In the meantime, the Wolfpack women are focusing on training hard — whether it be for trials or their return to collegiate meets in the fall. Hansson is currently in Sweden with plans to make her second Olympic team after finishing 27th in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio.
“I think a lot of what happens at trials will determine the rest of our summers, depending on how well we do,” Berkoff said. “We might be in Raleigh, or we might be in training camp somewhere else.”
According to Poole, the uncertainty of the season has made it difficult for many swimmers to determine what to do and where to go in terms of pro swimming. Right now, she’s focusing on the long course season.
“I’m just going to see how this year goes, see how my long course season goes,” Poole said. “I’m not really planning anything indefinitely, but obviously, I’m open to things, it just depends on where I am in my life at that time. Swimming is a very physically, emotionally, mentally tough sport, so I don’t know.”
For the time being, the Wolfpack women who are planning to swim this summer are taking some time to relax and recover in preparation of what will likely be an intense period of pro swim meets. On the collegiate level, the team is simply keeping its head high after coming off an incredible run.
“Our goals are probably just to replicate what we did because it was awesome,” Alons said. “If anything, our team just gets better next year, so I think we’re all pretty confident that we’re in for another good season.”