Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor
Valerie Daigneault has never missed a race. On meet days, she gets so nervous she will show up to the pool three hours early. Sometimes, she is at her block waiting before the men’s swim team is done with their events.
“‘They’re like, ‘Val why are you up here already,’ and I’m like, ‘Well I just don’t want to miss it,’” Daigneault said. “I just always like to be prepared. Sometimes I’m a little too prepared.”
Her over-preparedness seems to be paying off.
In two and a half seasons at Pitt, junior swimmer Valerie Daigneault has broken six team records — four relay events and two solo events. Her individual records include the 100-yard freestyle and the 200-yard backstroke, in 49.36 seconds and 1:55.15, respectively, both of which she broke at the ACC Championships last year.
Daigneault’s 100-free time was faster than the 2016 Olympic Gold medalist’s 100M time by 3 seconds — about the same amount of time it takes the average person to tie their shoe.
“It’s a great feeling,” Daigneault said. “Sometimes it doesn’t click, then you’re like, ‘Wow I’m the fastest person to ever have swam at Pitt in the 200 backstroke and 100 freestyle.’ When you say it aloud like that it’s kind of a shock.”
This year looks like it will be much of the same for Daigneault. After going undefeated in the first three meets of the season, Daigneault’s win total is up to 11.
She also competed at the Inaugural ACC/Big 10 Challenge — an all-star event featuring only the top swimmers from each conference — on Nov. 11, earning a personal best swimming the 200-yard individual medley in 1:58, placing sixth.
“I feel so happy with how I’m competing,” Daigneault said. “I think it really helps being an upperclassman because you have your freshmen and you have your sophomores kind of looking up to you to be a leader inside and outside the pool.”
For her, that leader is her older sister, Gabby Daigneault.
Growing up in Montreal, Daigneault did everything Gabby did. So when Gabby joined the swim team, it was a given Valerie would be there with her too. It didn’t matter she was an 8-year-old on a team for 9- and 10-year-olds — Daigneault wanted to keep up and she wanted to be there.
Daigneault is still following in her sister’s footsteps 12 years later. After watching Gabby sign to swim with Division I Villanova in 2014, Daigneault was determined to do the same. She signed with Pitt two years later.
“She’s gone through the same steps as me,” Gabby said. “Just seeing the hard work I put in she looks up to, it makes me incredibly proud and very gracious that she looks up to me in that way.
Daigneault and her sister have something else in common — they both chose schools where their dad, Jean-Jacques Daigneault, spent time as a professional hockey player.
Daigneault was born in California in 1997, shortly after her dad finished up a two-year stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins to play for the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. When she was committing to Pitt, she had no idea her father had already laid down some family ties there.
“He played for so many teams that I wasn’t really sure,” Daigneault said. “But when I committed he mentioned it because my sister went to school in Philly and I went to school in Pittsburgh he’s like, ‘You guys obviously chose the schools where I played on purpose.’”
Her father — known as JJ Daigneault during his playing days — played for 10 different NHL teams during his 16-year career. Although Daigneault wasn’t a key member for the Penguins, he famously scored the game-winning goal for the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 against the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in the 1987 Stanley Cup Finals. The Flyers would lose in Game 7, but Daigneault cemented himself as a Philly legend.
Daigneault’s mom, Janie Villeneuve, was also an athlete, and played basketball in college. Daigneault credits her athlete success to growing up in a competitive family.
While she loves it, Daigneault said at times, things get hectic — especially when it comes to her swim meets.
“They want the best for me,” Daigneault said. “And they’re like, ‘Come on, Val, you’ve got to win this.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah. I know I’m trying my hardest.’ But their support for me to be the best athlete I can be is amazing.”
Daigneault also has the support of her coach, even though he’s not the coach she originally agreed to swim for.
She had been recruited and signed by then-coach Chuck Knoles. But Knoles retired March 1, 2016, to spend more time with his family.
When current head coach John Hargis was hired to replace Knoles, Daigneault decided to stay at Pitt and start her collegiate career with an open mind.
As Hargis got settled and started looking at his new recruits, Daigneault immediately stood out.
“Once she got on campus and we were able to start working with her,” Hargis said. “We knew she was someone that could be pretty special.”
While Hargis has seen steady improvement from Daigneault the past two years, he is even more impressed with her this year, from a swimming and a leadership standpoint.
After trying to convince her to win the 400 individual medley the past two years, Daigneault decided to make Hargis’ day earlier this year.
She walked into his office and told him she would let him put her in the 400 IM at some of the meets this year. One of the reasons Hargis thought Daigneault shied away from the event was because of how tough it is.
“For her to get on board with that and to see how she’s progressed with that, in just that event, is fun,” Hargis said.
Ultimately, all of Daigneault’s hard work is going toward one goal — competing in the 2020 Olympics.
She is currently looking to compete at the Canadian Olympic trials, which will be held March 31 through April 5, 2020, right after her collegiate swim career comes to an end.
The 2016 Olympic qualifying time for the 100 free was 54.43 seconds, the 200 back was 2:10.60 and the 200 IM was 2:14.26. Daigneault’s best collegiate times are at least three seconds faster than each of those, and her personal best 200 IM time of 1:58.90 is more than 10 seconds faster.
“The work I put in now is definitely going toward 2020 Olympic trials,” Daigneault said. “And then I hope the results show what I want them to show, but yeah it’s 100 percent a goal.”
Those who know her have no doubt she’ll accomplish it.
“I have to say, seeing what she’s done these past three years, I think anything is possible,” Gabby Daigneault said. “I know the Olympics are in her mind and when she sets her mind to something, I definitely think it’s possible.”