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UVa swimming watch parties help bring celebratory feel to unusual Olympic experience

UVa swimming watch parties help bring celebratory feel to unusual Olympic experience

With a pair of teammates set to compete for Olympic medals in the 200-meter individual medley, a group of University of Virginia swimmers gathered inside Scott Stadium to watch their peers.

The Tuesday night watch party also included athletes from UVa’s women’s basketball, women’s soccer and men’s soccer programs. Prior to the race, everyone in the room was anxious. By the end of the race, which lasted just over two minutes, the room was euphoric.

UVa’s Alex Walsh won the silver medal, and her teammate Kate Douglass secured the bronze.

“I feel like I blacked out,” rising junior swimmer Caroline Kulp said. “We were screaming so loud and then all of a sudden we were silent and then they touched the wall and everyone just went crazy. We were screaming and everyone’s hugging each other. It was so exciting.”

Kulp, one of Douglass’ roommates, remembers everyone cheering from the moment Walsh and Douglass appeared on the TV screen until the last 25 meters of the race. At that point, several people in the room fell silent, awaiting the results of their close friends.

The room erupted once the TV broadcast showed that both Walsh and Douglass would return to Charlottesville as Olympic medalists.

“Watching all together in one room, which we haven’t really been able to do because of COVID, was just so special,” rising sophomore Abby Harter said.

As the week progressed, UVa’s swimmers and divers watched as their friends appeared on the “Today Show” and other media outlets. Their friends quickly blossomed into Olympic standouts.

“It’s really cool to see them on such a high stage,” rising senior Justin Grender said, “and now we’re friends with famous people.”

For most of the UVa athletes, a trip to Tokyo to cheer on their friends probably wasn’t in the cards even if COVID-19 restrictions were loosened. For the families of the Olympians, however, watching from home due to strict COVID-19 regulations in Tokyo brought with it a bit of heartbreak.

After years of attending swim meets and supporting her daughter’s swimming endeavors, Kate Douglass’ mother, Allison, watched from New York with her husband and two other children as Kate won a medal on the biggest stage in swimming.

“We wish we’d been there, and it’s just crazy for your kid to make the Olympics … and obviously we’re a part of it, but it’s unfortunate that we weren’t there,” Douglass said. “I didn’t think it would bother me as much as it did.”

Just one day after Walsh and Douglass won medals, UVa’s Paige Madden won a silver medal as part of the United States’ 4x200-meter freestyle relay team. Madden’s mother, Ellen, watched from her Alabama home with her husband.

Seeing her daughter win a medal was undoubtedly memorable and special. It also came with a bit of frustration.

Madden went to the Olympic Trials in person, and it was her first live meet in more than a year. Experiencing that atmosphere reminded Madden of what top-tier swim meets are like. After the event, she watched the TV feed and realized people at home were only seeing 50% or less of what was happening at the meet.

Watching from home meant missing out on portions of the experience.

“It was frustrating for me that during prime-time NBC would only show a medal ceremony if it was an American winning gold,” Madden said.

Madden found the ceremony on an international stream, which allowed her to watch her daughter be honored for winning a silver medal.

Douglass and Madden both wished they could’ve watched from the meet as their daughters won medals, but the circumstances demanded otherwise.

Even with some disappointment, each parent found tremendous delight in their child’s success. While they watched the meets with immediate family, each local community held a watch party during the week to support the athletes.

Seeing widespread support at home and watching the reactions of their daughters proved plenty memorable.

“It was so joyful to see her so joyful after all the hard work and perseverance,” Madden said.

For casual fans, watching the 4X200-meter freestyle relay brought stress. While Madden may have felt similar feelings, they didn’t diminish her appreciation for a remarkable swim, which saw each of the top-three teams beat the previous world record.

“What a great race, wasn’t it?” Madden said.

Douglass hoped her daughter would leave Tokyo with a medal, especially after how well she swam in preliminary races and the semifinal heat. In the end, Douglass, Madden and Walsh earned medals. Incoming freshman Emma Weyant joined in on the fun, earning a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley.

“We just wanted her to go home with something, and obviously we would’ve been unbelievably happy and proud of her no matter what happened, but it really couldn’t have worked out any better,” Douglass said.

COVID-19’s impact on UVa swimming has been substantial. The team was robbed of a chance to win a national title in 2020. Strict protocols kept the team away from most sizeable social interactions in 2020 and into 2021. Parents watched the Olympics from home. Paige Madden even had to overcome a bout with COVID-19 before this year’s Olympic Trials.

Regardless, the Wahoos consistently bounce back.

They won the 2021 national championship. Madden fought through her illness, made the Olympics and won a silver medal. Walsh and Douglass also earned medals. Local communities, including members of UVa’s team in Charlottesville, threw watch parties to celebrate Douglass, Madden and Walsh from afar.

Douglass’ roommates and teammates, Kulp, Ella Nelson and Maddie Donohoe spoke to her soon after she won bronze. The trio in Charlottesville had dressed up for the event, sporting Cowboy hats and United States-themed attire.

“She called us afterwards and she’s like, ‘I miss you guys, I wish I was there,’” Donohoe, a rising junior, said. “I was like, ‘You just won bronze! I think you’re fine.’”

The group can’t wait to reunite after Douglass spent the past six weeks or so qualifying for the Olympics, training with other members of Team USA and competing in Tokyo.

There were significant obstacles leading to the Olympics stemming from COVID-19. While the experience wasn’t quite a normal Olympic experience, the UVa swimming community embraced those challenges, enjoying a special week for the program.

Should any of the athletes return to the Olympics in 2024, expect to see plenty of parents in the stands.

“If she does make the team, there’s no way we’re missing that,” Douglass said.

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