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Q&A with Nevada swimming sensation and future astrophysicist Donna dePolo

Donna dePolo
Nevada's Donna dePolo was a four-time All-Mountain West honoree this season. (Byrne Photo/Nevada athletics)

It's hard to decide whether Donna dePolo's athletic or academic achievements in her first three years at Nevada have been more impressive. The Wolf Pack junior swimmer was a four-time All-Mountain West honoree at last week's conference tournament as Nevada finished in second place. dePolo, a Bishop Manogue High graduate, has earned eight all-conference honors in her career. She also competed in the U.S. Olympic trials at age 17 and has qualified for the 2020 Olympic trials in two events. Out of the pool, dePolo is a MW Scholar-Athlete studying physics and astronomy who wants to be a scientist like her parents, both of whom have worked for the university, and two older sisters, who are both working on their doctoral degrees (one in Scotland and the other at Northwestern). dePolo has posted a 3.92 cumulative GPA while being a member of the Honors College and is doing research work with a physics professor in radio astronomy, studying data reduction for black holes.

For dePolo's stellar swimming this month, she is Nevada Sports Net's Wolf Pack Athlete of the Month for February, an honor presented in partnership with Champion Chevrolet. You can watch our full interview with dePolo below, or check out our Q&A for a portion of the conversation, which includes studying astrophysics, staying at home for college, competing in the Olympic trials as a high school junior, starring for the Wolf Pack and what she does to unwind, among other things.

Q&A with Donna dePolo

On balancing last week's Mountain West Championship with midterms

Donna dePolo: "It's been crazy. I basically did no school work last week. I was focused on swimming. And then I came back this week and just got slammed by all my work and tests and quizzes to make up. My professors have been really accommodating and super awesome. They've been letting me make things up this week, so that allowed me last week to just focus on swimming. I've got some really awesome professors out there."

On studying physics and astronomy

DD: "I've always been passionate about astronomy and chose physics to kind of build that passion. Now I've been getting into some of my astronomy classes up at the university and I absolutely love them, so lots of work, but I'm happy where I'm at."

On her parents' influence (dad, Craig, is a research geologist; mom, Diane, is a network seismologist)

DD: "When we were growing up they said, 'You can be whatever you want to be.' Both of my sisters and myself said, 'Well, we want to be scientists like our parents.' We all wandered down our own cup of science. I've always loved star gazing and I've always liked tracking the planets when I was growing up, so that just built into my passion I have now. I've just wanted to nurture that for childhood Donna."

On her favorite thing about swimming for Nevada

DD: "It's really awesome and really a privilege to be here at the university. A lot of the girls on our team are very determined. We have a very international team and they don't come to America to mess around. They come to America to work hard because the U.S. is one of the top nations in swimming. They bring a really competitive culture to our team, and it's super easy to feed off that. My training buddy Wiktoria (Samula) is from Poland and our times are within tenths of each other, and we really push each other every day in practice. It's really awesome to be training with this group of girls, and I'm super excited for next year, too, to see where we can go because we're only getting stronger."

On picking Nevada over San Diego State and Boise State

DD: "I was already looking at Nevada when I was being recruited because I kind of wanted to stay close to home, my whole family went to the University of Nevada. A lot of coaches were contacting me and I kind of got super overwhelmed. I was, like, 'Oh, man, I don't even know how to handle this anymore.' I narrowed it down to three and I said, 'I'll go visit these three schools.' The Nevada visit was super short. (Coach) Brendon (Bray) emailed me a couple of months past when other coaches had been emailing me. He said, 'Hey, I just got hired. Are you interested in Nevada?' I was, like, 'You know, I kind of am. I kind of would like to stay close to home, but I'm also talking to these coaches up in Boise and down in San Diego.' I went on my visits there, and at Boise I just didn't feel right. It didn't click with me. Down in San Diego, it's beautiful there, but it's also super expensive. I thought, 'Maybe staying at home is the best option for me,' and I'm really glad I am where I am for the swimming aspect but also for my education. I really love all my professors."

On what Thanksgiving is like in the dePolo household given they're all scientists

DD: "It's pretty wild. We're all very sarcastic people, so we're all bouncing things off each other, saying outrageous things, but this Thanksgiving my sisters weren't able to get back home, so we had the laptop up with the split screen with my sister and her boyfriend and my other sister over in Scotland and we're all in different time zones and we put the laptop on the stove top and my mom and I are cooking and we're all just talking and my dad is wandering around. It was a good time."

On competing in the Olympic trials at age 17 (between her junior and senior seasons)

DD: "It was super eye-opening. Walking around the facilities, they had all these amenities for the athletes like food and therapy dogs. It was such a cool environment to compete professionally. I remember walking by the warm-up pool in the back of the stands. They had the whole theater set up around the competition pool and they had a couple of tunnels that lead to the warm-up pool. I was walking by the warm-up pool. I was walking on the pool deck there and I walked past (Michael) Phelps and I swear I did a triple-take. I was like, 'Be cool. Keep walking. It's OK.' Watching those elite athletes swim in person was super cool, but I also was absolutely nervous to get up there and race and I was all jittery. That kind of calmed my nerves. I don't get as nervous anymore when I race, so it was a really good experience to develop as a swimmer."

On how it will be different to compete in the trials again this summer

DD: "Just the confidence. I've grown my confidence as a swimmer and I've gotten a lot stronger thanks to Brendon and my assistant coaches and our weight coaches. They really help us grow into being good athletes. More maturity now. I've developed my rhythm, I know how to swim, I know how to prepare myself for those races now."

On how the breaststroke became her go-to stroke

DD: "I feel like your ankles have to be a bit messed up to be a good breaststroker, and I've got super loose ankles, so the flexibility is there. But growing up as a kid, I never liked backstroke. It's my worst stroke. I hate being on my back. All of my coaches growing up kind of noticed I was good at breaststroke, so they'd put me into breaststroke and said, 'Oh, you're doing really well.' They kind of fed my passion for breaststroke noticing I had the talent, and through them I've kind of grown and developed my own talent through college. It's such an awesome stroke."

On what she does to unwind from school and swimming

DD: "You're going to call me a nerd, but 'Donna Time' is either reading an outrageous fantasy novel or I'll drive up into the mountains and star gaze. I'll just get away with people, go with a couple of friends or go by myself and decompress."

For previous Wolf Pack Athletes of the Month Q&As, click here.

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