The North Carolina women's swimming and diving team set big goals for their season as they fought through a pandemic and made it all the way to the NCAA Championships.
Head coach and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mark Gangloff and head diving coach Yaidel Gamboa, each in their second year on the job, were determined to push the team forward.
After a successful dual-meet season, the Tar Heels dominated in the ACC Championships, where they placed eighth with 516.5 points — and swimmers and divers left having set new personal bests and earning valuable titles.
Shortly after, the Tar Heels sent eight athletes to the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, including swimmers Grace Countie, Amy Dragelin, Lilly Higgs, Sophie Lindner, Heidi Lowe and Ellie VanNote, as well as divers Emily Grund and Aranza Vázquez Montaño.
Though all eight women competed at their best, some of the athletes showed up and showed out, making history for the Tar Heels.
North Carolina must have arrived at the Greensboro Aquatic Center ready to compete, as the 200-yard freestyle relay team of Countie, Dragelin, Lindner and Lowe earned All-American status, finishing the first event on March 18 with a season-best time of 1:28.08.
Countie continued the momentum, placing fifth in the 50-yard freestyle with a time of 21.60. This gave her the second-fastest women’s 50-yard freestyle mark in UNC history.
Continuing to break both personal and program records, Countie finished the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 47.84, another second-best time in UNC history.
“I’ve sacrificed a lot to get here and I’ve worked hard this year because I have really big goals that I want to achieve,” Countie said.
Earning another All-American recognition, the 400-yard medley relay team — also made up of Countie, Dragelin, Lindner and Lowe — finished 15th, with a season-best time of 3:15.26.
“There’s always areas for improvement, but I could not have asked anything more from the athletes than what they were able to give me in this competition,” Gangloff said. “Everyone had a spectacular performance.”
On the diving side, Vázquez has had great success since joining the program in December. She qualified for all three disciplines at the NCAA Championships, finishing as the runner-up in both the 3-meter and 1-meter events. She also placed sixth in the platform event, granting her All-American status in all three disciplines.
“This is outstanding for a freshman,” Gamboa said. “I don’t think it’s ever been done before.”
Thanks to the diving team's electric performance and some great swims on the other end, the Tar Heels concluded the NCAA Championships finishing 12th overall, with 144 points as a team.
"It was surreal," Vázquez said. "I don’t know how to feel. I know it’s big, but my dad always tells me how I don’t acknowledge how big things are, so I just feel so happy that I could make it.”
Having overcome an unusual season darkened by the pandemic, both Gangloff and Gamboa are eager to see what their athletes will accomplish next year, as they further unleash their potential and continue to improve.
"Do what you can with what you have" is a mantra Gangloff has instilled in the team this season, and is one the women have taken to heart.
After a season of adapting, innovating and overcoming, the women’s swimming and diving program just might have all the right tools and potential to see even more success in 2022.