The Nevada swimming and diving team will become the fifth Wolf Pack program to compete again since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports in March 2020.
The Wolf Pack's season will be short, and Nevada is hoping its sweet. The team, which had an intrasquad scrimmage last weekend, takes on rival UNLV on Saturday at Lombardi Pool.
Nevada has largely avoided issues with COVID-19 while playing during the pandemic. Jay Norvell's football team was one of two Mountain West teams to complete its eight-game schedule. Steve Alford's men's basketball program hasn't missed a game due to a COVID-19 positive. And Amanda Levens' women's basketball program has played all but three games so far. The women's track and field team opened its season Friday in Colorado Springs at the Air Force Invitational.
As for swimming and diving, it's been nearly 11 months since fifth-year head coach Brendon Bray's team last competed. With a season that traditionally runs from September-April, Bray's team was cleared to practice in October but won't have its first true meet until this weekend. He said one of the keys is to be flexible in this unusual season.
"There have been some things that have been advantages for us, and some things that have been disadvantages in terms of preparing, and I think that’s probably true for everyone," Bray said on NSN Daily. "But we started late, we weren't really cleared to practice until October. Some other teams in our conference were cleared earlier, so you can view that as an advantage, but once we were cleared we were pretty much on a normal training schedule.
"We were able to schedule our practices like normal and we weren’t limited, and I know that is not the case for some of the other school. Depending on what part of the country you’re in, some places have been having meets all through the year, kind of like normal with not much of a change. Other teams have opted out or not competed. And then some have been in the middle, and I think we’re kind of in that boat in the middle."
Nevada could be limited to just one meet before the Mountain West championships, which are scheduled for Feb. 19-22. The Wolf Pack's dual has this weekend's dual meet with UNLV. The school's divers are scheduled to compete against Air Force on Feb. 5-6. And Nevada is hopeful for one more meet, at UC Davis, before the conference championships, but that remains in flux given school and local restrictions in California.
"You have to have an attitude that we’re lucky to race, we’re lucky to be funded from the department, we’re lucky to be around, we’re lucky to take advantage of hosting a meet, which we’re going to have this weekend," Bray said. "We’re going to be able to have a very limited amount of fans, which will be family members, which is really special. I’m thankful that UNLV wants to come up here and have a meet, and so when I think you have all of those things, you’re really thankful for it, and I just want us to try and race to the best of our ability.
"Sometimes when you have a change in how you normally prepare, it gives you an opportunity to maybe learn something about your team in a way you didn’t know in the beginning. So things in swimming and diving are not obvious answers, like A + B doesn’t equal C. Sometimes you change this formula around and you can get better results, so we’ll see. I’m just excited to see how we perform."
Nevada's opponent Saturday, UNLV, has already had two swimming meets and one dive meet under its belt, which should be an advantage coming into the weekend. The Wolf Pack athletes are just looking forward to getting to compete after almost a full year between events.
"In my head I know that we have the meet coming up, but I don’t think I’ve realized it been about (11) months since we’ve competed," senior captain Caitlyn McHugh said. "I know we’re all getting so excited and so stoked to just be able to race again, so I think it’s going to be great."
It hasn't been an easy journey for McHugh and her teammates, who are used to being around each other and training competitively year-round.
"I think because we’re all individuals, we all experience it differently, but we’re all experiencing the same thing," McHugh said. "We were not able to train, we were not able to compete, we all had the same thing taken away from us, so I think that brings us together because we were facing the adversity together. I think it just makes us closer that we're all going through it and we all want the same thing, and it’s making us more focused toward that goal because we’re all appreciating it more. I think it’s really brought us closer together."
With no freshman on this year's roster, Nevada added four transfers in the offseason after its lone senior, Andressa Cholodovskis, graduated and became an undergraduate assistant. The transfers include freestyle swimmers Emma Brady, from Boise State, and Mariana Vignoili, from East Carolina, along with backstroke/freestyle swimmer Kyla Alexander, from Louisville, and backstroke swimmer Reese Lamph, from Houston.
"I think the hardest part is that we have new girls join our team, but we haven’t been able to do any team bonding, anything together besides Zoom and Zoom isn’t really the same thing," McHugh said. "Normally in the fall at the beginning of the season we have all of these really fun activities and do team bonding, so I think we’ve really been missing that outside of the pool because that’s almost as important as being inside the pool to make those connections."
Nevada swim and dive has finished in the top three at the MW championships every year since 2014, including back-to-back second-place finishes. Given its unusual preparation for the season, the Wolf Pack will be a bit of an unknown heading into the conference meet. But with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to winter-sport athletes, three of the team's four seniors — McHugh, Donna DePolo and Montana Lloyd — plan on returning next season.
"It’s really exciting," McHugh said. "I’m really thankful for this opportunity because I’ve been swimming since I was 5 and I would have been really disappointed if this is how I was going to end my entire swimming career because it’s been 15-16 years. Being able to have this extra opportunity almost makes me appreciate it more, and I’m not taking it for granted and I’m really excited to have this opportunity."
Two Pack locals to compete in Olympic trials
With the Tokyo Olympics being pushed back to 2021, former Nevada standout and current volunteer assistant diving coach, Krysta Palmer, and current swimmer, Donna DePolo, a Bishop Manogue High grad, have qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials to be held in Omaha, Neb., in June.
"It’s really exciting," Bray said. "Donna has that experience from 2016 and Krysta as well, so they’re both kind of veterans of the process. I wasn’t personally at the Olympic trials in 2016, so I’m really excited to get a chance to go, and I’m hoping we keep everything as planned and the meet goes normally. I think the goal for both of them is to improve from where they were.
"Krysta has some very high aspirations, and I think anything can happen with Krysta. Donna would have to improve a lot to be in the conversation to make the Olympic team, but she has improved a lot since she’s been here, so it’s kind of one of these things where you have a great race, a great day, you just never know what can happen. So we’re just so lucky that we have these two American high-level athletes that are going to represent our community and our area."
Galena High junior swimmer Emma Karam, who recently committed to North Carolina, also has qualified for the Olympics trials.
Track and field opens 2021 season
The women's track and field team opened its season Thursday with the first day of the three-day Air Force Invitational in Colorado Springs. This weekend's indoor meet will feature senior Nicola Ader, senior Emma Dern, junior Hanah Smrt, junior Gabby Fraser and freshman Alisha Pawlowski competing in various events.
Ader, a five-time All American, will aim for her first NCAA medal this season after the NCAA indoor championships were cancelled due to COVID-19 last year. Ader had the sixth best high jump in the nation in 2020, and her five All-American honors are the most in program history.
You can follow along on the livestream by clicking here.