Thomas Yang | Assistant Visual Editor
When senior swimmer Rachel Brown steps up to the block and gets ready to race this week, possibly for the last time ever, she will dive into a pool she used to compete in when she was younger.
For Brown, a native of High Point, North Carolina, the Women’s Swimming and Diving ACC Championships this week at the Greensboro Aquatic Center in Greensboro, North Carolina, are more than just the championships — it’s a chance to go home. And if she doesn’t qualify for the NCAA Championships, it’s a chance to end things where she started.
“I wouldn’t say it adds pressure,” Brown said. “But it’s definitely exciting just to come back to North Carolina and see the sun shine for a little bit.”
Last year, Brown set a personal and school record in the 200-yard freestyle event at the ACC Championships with a time of 1:45.84 seconds to place 13th in the finals. She was also part of the record-breaking 200-yard freestyle, 800-yard freestyle, 200-yard medley and 400-yard medley.
Brown is scheduled to swim in the same events this year, and head coach John Hargis has high expectations.
“I think Brown is set to do some things that should be exciting,” Hargis said.
In addition to Brown, Hargis is excited to watch junior Valerie Daigneault’s performance. Last year, Daigneault placed 19th in the 200-yard backstroke at the ACC Championships and set a new program record with a time of 1:55.15.
At the championships this year, Daigneault will compete in three individual events, the 200-yard individual medley on the first day, either the 200-yard freestyle or the 100-yard backstroke on the second day and the 200-yard backstroke on the final day.
“I always love swimming the 200 [individual medley],” Daigneault said. “I think it’s an event every single time you just improve in little places you didn’t know you could before … but my 200 backstroke has always been my baby. I love that event.”
However, Daigneault’s event workload is limited due to a shoulder injury she suffered in late December. Due to the injury, her endurance for some races, like the 400 individual medley, is not as high as she would like. But the injury hasn’t held her back in her main events and Hargis doesn’t expect that to be any different this week.
“Daigneault is a girl who has competed in a high level all year,” Hargis said. “And has had a great dual meet season and she finished well in the championship last year and these next few meets.”
Last year, Pitt came in ninth place at the championships and scored 494 points –– 66 points more than it scored in 2017. After making a change to the training schedule and hiring a new strength coach, Hargis believes this year’s team will be able to top last year’s finish.
Hargis’ willingness to try different things to find success comes from his dad, who gave him some lifelong advice when he was younger: “If you want something you have never had, you must do something you have never done.”
Hargis incorporated this mantra into his coaching philosophy and tries new things with his team every day when it comes to training techniques. The biggest change from last year to this year was giving his athletes an extra day off during the week — something Hargis thinks has helped prepare his team better for the championships.
“The sign of the sport as it develops is showing an advancement in terms of kids having more time to recover, they are performing at higher levels,” Hargis said. “I think it’s allowed their bodies to recover a little bit.”
Hargis also believes his athletes are stronger and more powerful than ever, which could help them fight into an NCAA qualifying position.
For an athlete to qualify for the NCAA Championship, they must finish within a certain time. In any event, there is a time standard, and if an athlete makes the A-standard, they automatically qualify for NCAAs. If an athlete makes a B-standard, they earn an NCAA bid only if there aren’t enough faster times.
“The NCAA is the fastest meet in the world, every single year,” Hargis said. “It’s the most difficult meet to qualify for, so we are looking to hopefully have some kids qualify and we think we have some bodies who can do that.”
Early this season, Brown swam the 50-yard freestyle in 22.96 seconds and the 200-yard freestyle in 1:48.52. In order to reach a B-standard, Brown has to swim the 50 free in 22.76 seconds and the 200 free in 1:47.12.
Last year, Daigneault’s 200-yard backstroke time of 1:55.15 was enough to reach the B-standard, but if she wants an automatic bid to NCAAs, she has to finish in 1:50.50.
“I think right now my expectations are just to get best times in all my events,” Daigneault said. “I think the work we put in all season is going to show up … I hope to make NCAAs. That is the ultimate goal for anybody who is competing in ACCs.”
In addition to Brown and Daigneault, sophomore Camryn Forbes, who transfered to Pitt from Indiana University Bloomington and placed 15th at the 2018 Big Ten Championships in the 200-yard backstroke, and junior Madelyn Shaffer, who competes in the butterfly, are expected to continue their already successful seasons this weekend.
If the Panthers want to move up in the ranks, they will need an impressive showing from those athletes. Last year, Pitt beat Georgia Tech, Miami and Boston College, but finished behind eighth place Florida State by 84.5 points. Virginia swept the competition with 1382.5 points.
“Last year’s the highest finish in program history,” Hargis said. “But I just think that’s kind of the movement of where the teams are going … I think our women are in a good place right now and I think we could go as one of best teams in Pitt women’s history for our sport.”
The meet will begin Wednesday at 11 a.m. and conclude on Saturday.