The sorcery and science behind Virginia's swimming dynasty

A creative coach, a serious mathematician and out-of-this-world swimmers have combined to put Virginia on the verge of a three-peat national championship in NCAA swimming. Steve Boyle for ESPN

ALEX WALSH SLOWLY exhales as she propels herself toward the bottom of the pool. The bubbles ascend to the surface as she sinks. Her hands find the tile on the pool floor and she pushes her legs into a handstand. The long exhale keeps her anchored underwater.

Quickly, before her fingers are pulled off the tile, Walsh starts walking on her hands. One, two, three steps ... she takes seven in all. Her lucky number. It's also the number of events she will swim this week at the ACC championships. This is her first foray into the competition pool before races begin, and walking on her hands is as imperative as securing her swim cap before that first horn.

A day earlier and 180 miles away, Walsh dove into the University of Virginia's home pool one final time before leaving for the conference meet. She sank to the bottom for a handstand. One, two, three steps ... seven in all.

Ask coach Todd DeSorbo and he'll tell you why: The process transfers the hard work and preparation from home to competition.

"It's the magic," DeSorbo says simply.

DeSorbo, who self-describes as a "new school" coach, doesn't remember when he uncovered the mobile properties of mojo, but the UVA swimmers have been employing it ever since he arrived in August of 2017. "Magic" acts like that have helped usher in a period of disruptive dominance in NCAA women's swimming. The Hoos, once in over their heads on the national stage, will be going for their third straight national championship this week in Knoxville.

But make no mistake: Legends aren't built on pixie dust alone.

Alongside the magical traditions are the micro adjustments prescribed by Dr. Ken Ono, a mathematician at UVA who is hellbent on minimizing inefficiencies in swimmers' strokes. The angle of an arm as it enters the water. The power of a kick as it pushes off a wall. The efficiency of a breath as a swimmer heads for home.

"Mathematical optimization," Ono says simply.

This championship algorithm, of course, has otherworldly talent at its base. Alex Walsh is a veritable "Phelpsian" powerhouse. Her younger sister Gretchen Walsh is a versatile world-class sprinter. Kate Douglass is one of the most dominant NCAA swimmers in history.

New science, plus pixie dust, plus world-class swimmers who are open to unconventional methods of improvement? It's a simple formula for building a disruptive dynasty in a handful of years.

GRETCHEN WALSH KNOWS she needs to come up for air. It's the 50 freestyle, the fastest race of the meet, and she is kicking hard. With her long arms and powerful underwater dolphin kicks, Gretchen often flirts with the 15-meter mark -- the line of demarcation where swimmers have to be above water or risk disqualification. The red buoy that marks the line isn't visible from underwater; there's not a blaring red laser. So Gretchen has to know when it's time to pop up. But cutting it as close as possible gives her the best chance to win; she has seen the math and celebrated the results: 12 dolphin kicks (at least until she tapers) equals victory.

"I come up right at the 15," she says. "Some people have a little something to say about that, but it's clean. It's legal."

The flexibility in Gretchen's knees, ankles and elbows are her quirks. At 6-foot-1, she tried basketball when she was younger, but Gretchen was made for the water.

Everything has gone right for her so far in this race. She nailed her start from the block, paying close attention to the advice she had been given about bending her front leg just a degree or two more for a little extra boost. She'd gotten good propulsion at the wall.

Now, she bursts through the surface of the water right on cue and windmills her long arms toward the finish.

When she touches the wall, the roar of the crowd almost pops the roof of the Greensboro Aquatic Center. Gretchen posts a 20.83.

"I knew I was good at underwaters, just at the time I didn't really know how good," Gretchen says. "Seeing the data as to how the momentum I generate when I do an underwater kick, how that compares to other people, I think that just solidified for me ... that I need to emphasize that in my race."

Her time at the ACC championships is good for a conference, NCAA and American record, exactly .01 faster than her teammate Douglass and Gretchen's first individual record of the sort.

In swimming, tenths and hundredths of a second -- about the speed of a hummingbird's wing flap -- matter. And UVA has a person who has spent hours figuring out how to shave them.

A MAN CLUTCHING an iPad stands on the pool deck, observing as the combined UVA men's and women's squads take on Virginia Tech.

His iPad spits out data in the form of spikes that measure propulsion, or the force with which a swimmer moves through the water. There's also video thanks to some underwater cameras.

Lots of things contribute to speed: number and timing of dolphin kicks, hip positioning in the water, the underwater stroke in the breaststroke, to name a few. Figuring out the best approach for seemingly small, imperceptible decisions in the water sounds daunting. It's sort of like analytics in football and basketball; processing the data to find stats like completed passes over expectation boggles the mind.

But Ono, a mathematician and swimming enthusiast, relishes problems such as that. He's taken swimming and made it into a math problem, creating the foundation for the closest swimming analyses in existence to approximate Moneyball.

Warning: The explanation of that process will sound a bit like Doc Brown fitting a flux capacitor into his DeLorean.

"With the assistance of accelerometers and gyroscopes and high-definition video, we can mathematically render every swimming activity that an athlete performs in the pool," Ono says. "And we study that data together with tests that we've conducted on the athletes that will give us a sense of how many Gs can an athlete generate with this movement versus that movement."

For the layperson: How well does a swimmer propel themself through the water with a dolphin kick or a breaststroke, or with one arm during freestyle versus another? Ono can answer all of those questions through math, sometimes with incredible results.

The professor waded into the NCAA swimming world when he worked with Andrew Wilson when he was a student at Emory, a Division III school in Atlanta. Wilson wanted a spot on the team but he needed to get faster. "He was a great math student," Ono says of Wilson. "We started modeling some things together. He made the most incredible, extraordinary improvements in a four-year period perhaps in the history of North American swimming."

It sounds pretty far-fetched, but Wilson is believed to be the first Division III swimmer in history to make the U.S. Olympic team when he went to Tokyo. He made the final in the 100-meter breaststroke, finishing sixth. And he won a gold medal for swimming prelims in the 4x100 medley relay.

Mathematical optimization indeed.

Ono moved to the University of Virginia in 2019 and began working with DeSorbo and the swim program soon after. Paige Madden, who would win four NCAA titles as a senior in 2021, benefitted from a simple breathing change. Ono noticed that she was consistently generating twice the acceleration on her right side as her left. The fix, or micro adjustment, as Ono calls it, was to have Madden breathe to the right on occasion during her warmups for a race "to get more used to getting the body in that fully rotated position, to help her catch water better," says one of Ono's assistants, Jerry Lu. Lu grew up swimming at the same club as Wilson and Katie Ledecky and Phoebe Bacon. He was already a student at UVA when Ono arrived, and he jumped on board.

Ono and Lu also worked with Madden on her underwater dolphin kicks. Unlike some swimmers, Madden's kicks got stronger with each one she added, meaning her third kick generated more propulsion than her first one. Ono and Lu suggested that on the last 50 of the 400 freestyle, Madden add a couple of extra kicks -- energy management was also important here, so swimmers couldn't just do unlimited dolphin kicks throughout races.

The goal of Ono's program isn't to turn every swimmer into Phelps or Ledecky; such things are impossible because each swimmer is unique.

"We have some national-caliber athletes that if you told them to swim like the Olympic champion in their event by emulating their strategy, our athletes might be a whole lot worse," Ono says. "Someone might be able to take seven or eight dolphin kicks off the wall every time, whereas others who might be much less flexible should only take three. But then emphasize other aspects of the swim."

Alex Walsh has made small, impactful changes to her butterfly stroke thanks to Ono's observations. Prior to swimming at UVA, Alex didn't swim a ton of butterfly. Now it's much more of an emphasis for her as someone who swims the IMs and who, by the way, is also the reigning NCAA 200 butterfly champion. The suggestion for Alex was to drive her knees more forcefully into the water. The displacement of the water causes more propulsion in her stroke, ultimately making her faster. "They tell me to pretend I'm kneeing someone I don't like," Alex says with a laugh. "He was telling me all these things, and they seemed such simple fixes, and even though they're habits that you have to establish, they're not hard habits."

Believe it or not, Ono even identified inefficiencies in Douglass' breaststroke -- she owns the NCAA record in the 200-yard event. But pry as you might, nobody's willing to spill the beans on what makes her one of the most successful athletes the sport has seen.

ONE EARLY JANUARY MORNING, Douglass takes a breath as a hodgepodge playlist thumps through the weight room. The room buzzes around her as teammates chat between sets. Douglass, however, is focused and efficient.

She stares at the 42-inch stack of soft-sided cylindrical "boxes." She started at 36 inches this morning and has decided to go up for her final two sets. Almost everyone else on the women's team has done the 30-inch jump. She's the only one to try for 42 inches.

Douglass bends her knees before exploding upwards. Like her strokes in the pool, the movement is graceful, almost a glide. Though it's evident there's power behind the movement, she looks like she's floating up to the top box.

"In the past year, I've started to be able to do that," Douglass says. "It's pretty fun to do the same stuff as the boys."

Douglass ended up at UVA partially because of FOMO. The Pelham, New York, native was the second-ranked recruit in her class by SwimSwam. Her parents, who had attended college in Virginia, thought UVA might be a good fit for her. But Douglass really started paying attention when her friends and fellow swimmers Maddie Donohoe and Ella Nelson committed to the school.

"I was just like, 'I have to go to UVA. I'm going to get FOMO if I don't,'" Douglass says. "That's really what ended up pushing me towards this school. Because UVA just seemed like the best balance between having fun, and getting a good education, and also being able to have a great experience on a swim team."

Douglass blossomed in Charlottesville. She made the Tokyo Olympic team in the 200-meter individual medley after finishing second to her teammate Alex Walsh by .02 seconds at the Olympic Trials. Normally a stoic competitor, it was hard to miss the emotion from Douglass as she embraced Walsh over the lane line when they realized they were both heading to Tokyo. Douglass brought a bronze home from Tokyo; Walsh secured the silver.

"I think it was something that I never thought was going to happen," Douglass says of making Team USA. "I feel like I was always afraid to want it because I didn't want to be disappointed. And I don't know if I was ever really confident enough in myself to think that I could ever actually make the Olympic team. So that moment definitely boosted my confidence in myself."

Riding that wave of confidence through 2022, Douglass has continued to impress. At the 2022 NCAA championships, she became the first swimmer in Division I history to win three individual titles across three different strokes when she won the 50 free, 100 fly and 200 breast in Atlanta. She also set NCAA and American records in all three of those races. She won the bronze medal in the 200-meter breast at the 2022 FINA World Championships. To cap an incredible year, she became a world champion in the 200-meter IM and the 200-meter breaststroke at the 2022 FINA Short Course World Championships. Douglass also has a stack of medals from her relay participation. In Knoxville this week, Douglass will not defend her 50 free title, instead swimming the 200 IM along with the 100 fly and 200 breast.

"I feel like [my confidence] has just been improving more and more over the years," Douglass says. "I keep going to these international meets and proving myself to me that I can accomplish these things."

As her college career comes to a close, Douglass has already etched her name all over the UVA and NCAA record books. She sits in a chair contemplating the mark she's leaving on a program and sport she loves, and Douglass is just as surprised as anyone else at the athlete she's become.

"I guess just coming into college, I didn't think I'd leave as big of a legacy as it seems I'm going to," she says. "Doing something like that is always just a pretty cool feeling I guess."

Make no mistake: Hard work is at the root of her legacy. But -- insert wand wave here -- maybe the work wasn't quite as hard as you'd think.

WITH GOLDEN RETRIEVER energy and ears flopping out from underneath his baseball cap, DeSorbo shouts instructions to the sprint group and walks around the pool deck to individually adjust workouts.

This particular morning, the sprinters wrap belts around their waists. The belts are attached to a tower of weights. DeSorbo coaches them through a series of exercises designed to build power against the weighted resistance. The amount of resistance varies for each swimmer. DeSorbo is the ultimate arbiter, and he's always adjusting.

He watches as the swimmers burst underneath the water -- two and a half butterfly strokes, then four dolphin kicks on each side, more dolphin kicks and more butterfly strokes. If a swimmer pulls the weight a little too high on the tower for his liking, DeSorbo adds more.

"Todd loves resistance," associate head coach Blaire Bachman says. "How he uses it is pretty proprietary to him. I don't ever think that there's a practice that they're not using some form of resistance. It's always either socks, or shoots. Or paddles, or fins. Or racks, or towers. Or cords. Something is always there, supplementing the speed work."

DeSorbo sees himself as more of a new-school coach, swapping the old-school swimming mores of drilling yardage for greater resistance and fewer yards.

"If you compare our program to most other programs in the country, we would be on the lower end," DeSorbo says. "We take a much more quality-over-quantity approach. Old-school has worked really well for some, but I think that kids are different these days than they used to be. I don't think they are -- I know they are."

No matter how you slice it: Swimming is a grind. The culture of the sport is anchored in early morning practices -- getting up at 4:30 a.m. before school to fit in a couple hours of club practice. For the athletes on the pool deck at UVA's Aquatic & Fitness Center, they've been getting up early for their entire athletic lives. And then coming back to the pool in the afternoons.

"You play basketball, you play soccer; you don't play swimming," DeSorbo says to me over lunch. "It's not a lot of fun, so I think our staff does a good job of making it about as fun as it can be. A happy swimmer is a fast swimmer."

DeSorbo does what he can.

"He's a little wild and loud," Douglass says. "I think it's great and helps get us going sometimes when we're a little tired or don't really want to be here."

DeSorbo quit his accounting job to take a sprint coaching job at his alma mater, UNC Wilmington, even though he'd spent his own career as a middle-distance swimmer. After spending five seasons at UNCW, DeSorbo left for NC State, where he continued coaching sprint swimmers, including multiple athletes who would become Olympians. Before he was hired by the University of Virginia in 2017, DeSorbo was beating the Hoos. The season prior to his arrival, NC State upset the UVA women at the ACC championships, denying UVA its 10th consecutive championship. At the time UVA dominated the ACC and was competitive nationally, but the program wasn't a threat to the big dogs in swimming.

"The top three schools just have a stranglehold, always have," DeSorbo says. "Texas, Cal, Stanford, to a little bit of a lesser degree Florida."

Upon his arrival at UVA, DeSorbo began to instill culture changes. He didn't expect swimming to be his athletes' only priority -- especially since many of them came to UVA for academics -- but he did want it to be more of a priority. The team mantra that year was "all day," as in you're an athlete all day and sometimes that means sacrifices for the betterment of personal success and the team's success need to be made.

He also broke out his crystal ball.

A week after he started, DeSorbo told Madden he thought she could be an Olympian. Madden didn't believe him at first, and she continued to not believe him for about two years after that. But she went to the World University Games in 2019, earning two medals. She was the back-to-back ACC Swimmer of the Year in 2020 and 2021, and she won three individual NCAA championships in 2021. And she did become an Olympian, winning a silver medal in the 200-meter freestyle relay at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

DeSorbo's energy radiates. He's loud and silly, and a bit of a goofball. "He just lights up the room and he comes in at 5 a.m. just screaming his head off and it's nothing like anyone's ever really seen," Madden says. "He's just excited about swimming."

It shows. A big part of UVA's success in DeSorbo's mind has been athlete development.

"I mean they were good when they got here," DeSorbo says. "I think there's a lot of programs out there that don't necessarily do as good of a job. They get really good recruits, really fast ones, but they don't necessarily get a ton better. All of ours have gotten a lot better."

Sensational sisters included.

ALEX AND GRETCHEN WALSH were toddlers when their mom, Glynis Walsh, a former swimmer at Boston College, pulled floaties over their arms and dropped them into a Florida swimming pool.

"We were like, 'Great! You can float,'" Glynis says.

As they got older, Glynis would teach them how to kick with straight legs. She signed them up for swim lessons when Alex was 6 and Gretchen was 4. On that day, she learned her daughters were good little swimmers as they cut through the water with ease, somehow already knowing how to freestyle with minimal instruction.

In high school, Gretchen and Alex often went to practice and raced each other. Despite being swimmers who specialize in different distances and different strokes, they often squared off in lanes next to each other, battling against the stopwatch and also each other, which made for some awkward car rides home. "I think it created a little bit of tension between us," Alex says.

Despite attending the same college and swimming on the same team, UVA granted Alex and Gretchen more space. As a sprinter who is the reigning NCAA champion in the 100 free, Gretchen primarily works with DeSorbo, and Alex, the reigning NCAA champion in the 200 IM, 400 IM and 200 fly, works with middle-distance coach Bachman. Sometimes, though, Alex wanders over to the sprint group for speed training, like on the January morning practice after lifting.

"So me and her train together probably twice a week, maybe," Alex says. "When we're in the same training group, I'll try to get her lane because I like to talk to her and stuff. But she's not very fond of talking that much."

The Walshes share a sport and a last name, but they also share dreams. One of those was the Olympics. The trials for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics occurred the summer after Gretchen's senior year of high school. While her older sister secured her spot on the team, the younger Walsh struggled and wound up watching her sister from home instead of being by her side in Tokyo.

"I felt pretty defeated in that moment, because it's just hard, especially coming out of COVID," Gretchen says. "I had such a difficult year just training by myself the majority of the time. I really hated that. But, at the end of the day, I learned that that moment didn't really define me whether or not I went to the Olympics or not, because I still had more opportunities to come. And if anything, coming to UVA was what got me reset on that path."

In Tokyo, Alex won a silver medal in the 200 IM. The following summer she became the world champion in that event, posting the fifth-fastest time in history. She also added two additional gold medals through relay events. Her burgeoning success in the 50-meter pool has her poised for a haul in Paris.

When it came time to decide where they would swim collegiately, it would have been tempting to assume that the Walshes would stick together, that Gretchen would follow Alex. Ultimately, Gretchen did, in fact, decide on Virginia a year after her sister did. But Alex was also a big reason why Gretchen considered making a different decision.

"We made our little pro-con lists at dinner, and I was the only thing on the cons list!" Alex says, laughing as she tells the story.

"I didn't want to prove everyone right," Gretchen says. "I was worried that other coaches were going to think, 'Oh, she just went to Virginia because her sister's there,' and I didn't want people thinking that. But, at the end of the day, people can think whatever they want, it's turned out great."

In ways you wouldn't expect.

THE BLINDS TO A CLASSROOM off the pool deck snap closed. Beats blast as swimmers from the men's and women's teams gather around a giant party speaker in the middle of the room. They jump up and down in a makeshift mosh pit. Lights flash.

It's senior night at UVA, and the party room has served the team well all season long. Sometimes DeSorbo jumps in the middle to break them all down. All energy. All fun.

Alex's first experience in this room was as a recruit, and every time she jumps up and down with the Hoos, she's reminded why she came to UVA. "I get a little déjà vu," she says.

Making swimming fun is part of DeSorbo and his staff's mission. Partially because swimming isn't exactly a fun sport. It hurts. Alex sometimes throws up after races. Gretchen throws up in practice. So how do you motivate a team to push themselves as hard as they can when their bodies and muscles are screaming?

You bring a speaker to dual meets. You bring a button to the pool deck that sounds like a foghorn. You come in early brimming with silly energy. "Our staff does a good job of making it about as fun as it can be," DeSorbo says.

The fun becomes the pixie dust that binds teammates and generates confidence in what each swimmer can accomplish.

Each time she touched the wall to win a race for UVA, Douglass developed more belief in herself that she was exactly who DeSorbo said she could be. Alex used to get really nervous before meets but her teammates gave her the confidence and belief in something bigger than herself. She wasn't racing to put her name in the record books; she was doing it to score points for her team. It was for the Hoos. "They've been so transformative in how I approach racing," she says.

Madden swam the 1,650 freestyle at the 2021 ACC meet and NCAA championships instead of a shorter backstroke distance because she knew it would score more points for UVA to have her in the mile. "Who wants to swim a mile over eight laps of backstroke?" Bachman says. "I don't know many people that would want to do that."

The entire 2021 team sacrificed to win the program's first championship that year. UVA was predicted to win the 2020 championship, but the meet was canceled because of the pandemic. The returning team was hungry and did whatever it could ensure everyone was healthy heading into championship season. "No one on our team got COVID that entire year," associate head coach Tyler Fenwick says. "They sacrificed their social lives. They sacrificed everything that you think of as fun in college to be able to put themselves in a position to win a championship."

The records, the titles, the championships mean more for this team because they are a team. They do it together.

THE ACC TITLE was already well decided by the time the final relay stepped up to the block. G. Walsh, A. Walsh, Lexi Cuomo and Douglass -- the same group that had already won two relays and set two conference and American records -- were slated to lead the charge at the meet's final event: the 400 freestyle relay.

It was only fitting that the same group that kicked the meet off in spectacular fashion would be the ones to see it through. One by one, they each dove in. Water splashed as they churned their arms and furiously kicked their feet. Alex anchored the race, and when she touched the wall, 3:06.83 flashed on the screen.

Another conference, NCAA and American record.

Of the 18 swimming events, the UVA women won 14 of them, leading to a record 1,536 points and a fourth consecutive ACC championship.

After UVA was awarded the meet trophy, and Douglass was named the top performing swimmer of the meet, the Hoos jumped into the diving pool in celebration, as is customary after a championship meet victory. They held hands in class groups, each class taking a few steps before flinging their bodies (not so gracefully) into the pool. The coaches, who were fully clothed, joined in. Fenwick did a front flip, Bachman did a cannonball and DeSorbo did some kind of a half-piked toe-touch, face plant.

A raucous celebration steeped in joy, earned through hard work, skill, and attention to the details that matter. It added up to a magical moment -- one they hope to repeat Saturday in Knoxville.

Treading water in their ACC champion shirts and hats, the UVA team sings "The Good Old Song." The lyrics set to the familiar tune of "Auld Lang Syne" waft over the pool through the chlorine-riddled air. They furiously splash water and shout a now familiar chant.

"Hoo-rah-ray, hoo-rah-ray, ray, ray, UVA."