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Better and Better: Student-Athlete Swimming Sensation Gretchen Walsh (McIntire ’25)

With her record-breaking performances on the UVA Women's Swimming & Diving team and her entrepreneurial spirit, Walsh is making waves both in and out of the pool.

Gretchen Walsh

Anyone who follows women’s swimming or University of Virginia sports for that matter is well aware of Gretchen Walsh. The third-year who has already made her mark on her sport is a rising superstar in every sense of the word.

Since pledging to the Cavaliers in 2020 and coming to Grounds the following year, Walsh has smashed a host of records—many those she set herself—and accumulated an incredible amount of accolades. She is the first woman to break the 48-second mark in the 100 fly with a 47.42 and the first woman to break the 45-second barrier in the 100 free at 44.83. In fact, her efforts are directly responsible for UVA winning the 2024 NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in Athens, GA, this past March. Thanks to Walsh’s results, UVA is one of three women’s D1 swim program to ever repeat four consecutive times at the event, and adds to the University capturing what totals the fifth-most titles in history.

All told, Walsh has performed so shockingly well—and so often—that there simply isn’t enough space here to cover all that the Comm School student is accomplishing in her ascending swimming career. (See a list of her ever-growing amazing achievements at Virginia Sports.)

Hailing from Nashville, TN, Walsh points out that she spent a significant chunk of her childhood in Old Greenwich, CT, where she first began swimming at age four despite disliking the chilly water. While she would step away briefly from the pool, she would return to it through summer league swimming while still young. In 2014, she moved back to Nashville from the Northeast with her family, which includes FINA gold medal- and Olympic silver medal-winning elder sister and highly decorated UVA teammate Alex. Refocused with new seriousness as a youngster in Tennessee, she continued to excel.

“That’s when I took a more serious approach to the sport,” she says. “When I was 13 years old, I made the 2016 Olympic trials, and I was the youngest qualifier there. That’s when I thought, ‘Okay, this is a legit thing.’”

The successes kept coming. She topped the results at the state and national levels, and internationally, as a two-time individual gold medalist at the World Junior Championships in 2019.

But when she began making waves in the swimming world as a teenager, she didn’t picture herself at UVA. That decision would come later.

Unexpected Results

As an eighth-grader at Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, where Walsh attended from sixth grade through 12th, she remembers an assignment requiring her to write a letter to her then-future senior year self. She started pondering the possible places where she might find herself in a few years.

“I had a list of potential colleges that I would want to go to, and UVA wasn’t even on there,” she says.

The University may not have been on her radar just then, but those around her would start heading toward Charlottesville, and the many connections began to influence her plans.

“I swam for Nashville Aquatic Club in Nashville, and when I was a freshman, one of our girls who was a senior ended up going to UVA. Then the whole coaching staff changed, and another teammate—who’s still a teammate—Ella Nelson [Education ’23, M.S. in Commerce ’24], committed to UVA as a junior in high school,” Walsh says. “Then my sister committed to UVA when she was a junior in high school. So when I started doing my whole recruiting process, I obviously thought I would have to look.”

The funny part for her now, she admits, was that she originally viewed Alex’s presence on the team as a negative. “She was actually a con on my pros and cons list because I didn’t want everyone to think that I was following her. I wanted to have my own recruiting process and choose the place that was best for me. But everything started pointing to UVA,” she says. Taking a moment to reconsider her choice, she is clearly pleased. “The team is amazing, and the atmosphere is so awesome.”

Transitioning from youth sports into the collegiate realm proved to be a difficult. “I did not train nearly as much on my club team as I do here at UVA, but all of the aspects—swim, school, and my social life—were given new demands,” she recalls. “Navigating that balance of life was hard. My first semester, it took a lot of reaching out for support when I needed it,” she says, clarifying that growing up, she hadn’t ever had the mindset to ask for help. “I had to learn to do that. Once I did, I had to accept that I had to sacrifice some parts of my life. A lot of people say that being a student-athlete, you don’t get the normal college experience, but I honestly feel like I have such a unique one,” Walsh insists. “It’s cool that no one else gets to stay here over spring break and train for NCAAs the next week to be a four-in-a-row NCAA champion.”

UVA also stood out to her academically, as she highly valued its educational programs, including McIntire. “Specifically, I knew that I wanted to apply to the School of Commerce because I’ve always been a very numbers-oriented person. I love math, and I wanted to study finance because I thought that was a good way to combine my love for numbers with something business-oriented in the real world,” she says. “I didn’t really want to become a professor, a common thing for Math majors to do. Everything was pointing towards UVA in the end because I decided we have everything here.”

That abundance includes the relationships she’s formed within the Comm School. “I have had such a good experience in Comm, and I attribute to a lot of it to my block, Block 5. We have such a good time,” she says, explaining that she and fellow swimmer Ella Bathurst (McIntire ’25) all mesh well with each other and the faculty. “Then there’s a whole side of UVA that I’ve been introduced to through these people. I’ve really appreciated getting outside my swim team bubble a little bit, so I’m really grateful for the block and McIntire for introducing me to this new side of UVA. It’s been really rewarding.”

Strength in Numbers

Ultimately, the fact that the Walsh sisters attend the same University turned out to benefit not just Virginia Swimming, but her folks as well. “When my parents come visit, it’s like a two-in-one, and it’s super convenient for them. They’ve benefited so much from all of this,” she says, pointing out that they’ve formed a close friend group with other parents of her teammates.

As for her connections with the team itself, she considers the group a second family and points out that the coaching staff represent some of the most beloved people she has met along the way thus far.

Referencing her interest in math, she explains that Mathematics Professor Ken Ono, who has been highlighted for his work with the team, has been a supportive partner.

Using tools such as accelerometers, Ono outfits the team with belts as they do test sets to pinpoint areas lacking efficiency. “I do a lot of my races underwater, and he was the one who made me realize that that’s where my power was,” she says. As Ono has been undertaking the project in connection with the U.S. Navy, Walsh says in the results they are equating human swimming styles to animals. “I have been compared to a dolphin,” she says, noting that the results of his testing pushes her to new heights by pointing out areas she can strengthen for better performance outcomes.

“Because he’s looking at the numbers, and he has a more mathematical idea of what we’re truly capable of, I’m combining my two interests through him.”

Walsh, who mainly competes in freestyle, butterfly, and her preferred stroke, the backstroke, says that in her daily practice in the sprint group, focus is a must. “What we do is very intentional swimming. If you’re not paying attention, my primary coach, Todd DeSorbo, will know,” she says, crediting him for keeping the energy high and the atmosphere light by cracking jokes.

The Commerce student appreciates his approach, particularly when her mind starts flashing forward to all the tasks awaiting her each day after she leaves her morning routine. “Something that I’ve learned over the course of my career is that when you’re in practice, at least, all you can control is what you’re doing in the moment. And so, I am always finding myself having to pull myself back to the present and realize that I can’t do my homework in the pool.”

Walsh also acknowledges the contributions of her group for providing a positive bent to what can be grueling work. Noting that their camaraderie often distracts her from any sources of stress, she has taken what could potentially result in burnout into a space of calm. “Swimming is definitely a good outlet for working out. Stepping away. When you’re in the water, you’re doing your own thing, and it’s nice,” says Walsh.

Business In and Out of the Pool

Beyond using swimming as a competitive platform, a way to clear her mind, as well as an avenue for combining her interests in math with athletics, she’s also been able to use the trailblazing results she and her sister have made in the sport to launch their own swimwear line.

“I came into college thinking that I was probably going to go pro after my second year and I wouldn’t be able to compete collegiately, because you end up missing out on quite a bit of money,” she says. “But NIL [name, image, and likeness, which allows college athletes to receive financial compensation through marketing and promotional work] has been the biggest blessing in my life from a financial perspective, because it allowed me to have a lot of opportunities to make a name for myself outside of just swimming at UVA.”

Her first sponsorship came with SwimOutlet, the biggest U.S. online swim retail company. “They have their own swimwear line called Sporti. My sister and I are both SwimOutlet ambassadors, but we also have the Walsh Sister line with Sporti, and we’ve had two collections come out so far.” That has allowed the sisters to collaborate with the company’s design team to pick themes and “lively and youthful” designs, as well as adjust the silhouette and shaping. “A lot of who Alex and I are is represented in them, so it’s nice to know that we can be such a big part of the design process and pick out what we want to see in our suits, because they are ours at the end of the day,” Walsh says, explaining that the sisters will be taking part in a photoshoot for their third collection in Tampa, FL.

Additionally, the McIntire student has secured sponsorships with Italian-French competitive swimwear brand Arena and energy drink Celsius.

“I feel like I’m a businesswoman on one side and a student-athlete on the other. There are a lot of different aspects of it,” she says, acknowledging that the efforts have made her a very public figure. The downside is that she is vulnerable to hateful comments online, but she realizes that kind of negativity comes with the territory. “I can’t please everybody, and coming to terms with that has been a hurdle in the whole process,” she says. “But I’ve gotten so much good feedback from friends and family and more—especially with the swimsuit line. It’s the coolest thing ever to see little girls and little boys on pool decks wearing them.”

Having been continually heartened by the positive aspects of her sponsorships, she is especially excited by those that connect to her Comm School coursework and potential career path.

“I get to work with a lot of people who are doing things that I want to do later in life,” she says. “I’m not exactly sure what my future looks like, but having the opportunity to work with executives in these big companies is the coolest thing. I’m seeing what they do on a regular basis and get a firsthand peek at what I might be doing in the future.”

Still somewhat shocked that she has her own swimsuit line collection and finds people wearing it, Walsh makes sure to take it all in when she comes across it.

“It is a really surreal experience, and I always take photos,” she says, referencing that recently a UVA alum texted her to tell her that their son was with his friends, talking about their favorite athletes, and her name was mentioned among headliners like soccer’s Lionel Messi and basketball’s LeBron James. “That’s really cool, but I think it’s really cool for swimming and women athletes. I know I’m not the most famous female athlete ever, but even to have some kind of contribution to the whole movement is what this is about at the end of the day,” she says. “Who cares about the money if you’re boosting the whole history of female athletes to come? There’s a future there, and I want to make it better and brighter for everyone else, too.”

With all of her swimming, endorsement, and the Comm School commitments, Walsh doesn’t have much in the way of free time. She still tries to carve out moments to hang out with her friends, play chess, “watch a good series” (she’s catching up on “Game of Thrones,” which she started during spring break), and try new food, which she does by taking advantage of the Charlottesville dining scene. But she still has big things ahead of her for which she aspires to conquer: the 2024 summer Olympics and going pro.

“I want to make the Olympic team this year. Last time around was a little disappointing, but I’m feeling very confident,” she says, pointing out that she’s hoping to qualify for the 100 fly, the 100 free, and perhaps the 50 free as well. “But more than just making it, I have a lot of time goals for myself. I want to focus on a goal that I’m in control of so I have some times in mind.”

No one would doubt that whatever those numbers are, Walsh has the power to reach them. And if history has taught us anything, she’ll be ready to break right past them, too.

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