An eight-day swim meet at the 2022 FINA World Championships was an experience that two UNC teammates — one senior and one first-year — will remember for a lifetime.
After ending the UNC swim and dive season together in a freestyle relay at the NCAA Championships in March, recent graduate Lilly Higgs and rising sophomore Olivia Nel traveled to Budapest, Hungary for the world championship. The two swimmers competed for the Bahamas and South Africa, respectively, from June 18 to June 25 in several events.
This marked not only the first trip to Hungary for both swimmers, but more importantly their first senior-level international event.
"I would say it's pretty different, just because with the junior-level (competitions), nobody's older than 17 or 18, so you're competing against people closer to your age range," Higgs said. "At this level of worlds, there were some guys swimming that were close to 40 and there were junior swimmers there that are still 15 and 16."
Higgs competed in two breaststroke events and the mixed medley relay, finishing with 1,994 points and achieving a personal best in the 4x100 relay. Nel finished with 2,299 points, including a 50-meter backstroke performance that earned her 800 points.
"Taking it as a full learning experience was the best thing that I could've done for my first meet like that," Nel said. "I just absorbed everything I did every day I went to the pool."
Although they wore different colors in the world championships, the two teammates still cheered each other on as their respective teams competed. For Higgs and Nel, the FINA World Championship capped off an already successful senior and first-year season, respectively.
To qualify for the 2022 NCAA Championships in the women's 200-yard medley relay, Higgs and her relay teammates reset the UNC school record by .65 seconds with an automatic qualifying time of 1:35.58. At the NCAA Championships, Higgs helped break the school record in the event yet again on the first day of competition, as the team finished with a time of 1:35.29.
“It was really exciting to be able to do that,'' Higgs said. “And to keep my name up on the record board and make (the record) a little harder to be replaced.”
While Higgs was shattering records in her final season, Nel had to spend much of her first season at UNC recovering from injury. Nel sat out three months due to a herniated disc injury in her back that occurred in July of 2021.
During her time away from the pool, Nel witnessed what college swimming takes from watching veteran teammates like Higgs. This only strengthened her desire to be an excellent swimmer, and Nel continued on to compete alongside Higgs at the 2022 NCAA Championships.
“When you see the older girls making it," Nel said. “It just kind of makes you work that much harder to do it when you're younger.”
Head coach Mark Gangloff said he's proud to see both swimmers compete at the pinnacle of their sport. It’s no surprise to Gangloff that Higgs’ leadership contributed to Nel's early success.
“She's just now scratching the surface of what she's going to do over the course of her career," Gangloff said about Nel.
Higgs and Nel swam their last race together back in March, have since reunited at the FINA World Championships and will see each other again soon at the 2022 Commonwealth Games that will run from July into August.
For Higgs, this was her last meet as an undergraduate, as she forfeited her fifth year of NCAA eligibility. Higgs will continue to compete this summer for the Federation of the Bahamas and will start graduate school in the fall at East Carolina University
Nel is looking forward to her upcoming sophomore year as a Tar Heel, but is also looking forward to seeing Higgs internationally again soon.
“When everyone else had to kind of say goodbye to her on our team,” Nel said. “I kind of just can give an ole ‘See you later.’”