Victory! Men’s swimmer wins NCAA title and women’s swimmer named All-American

Thetford brought home W&L’s first men’s swimming NCAA title in eight seasons


Emily Rollo, ‘17, set both the school and ODAC record in the 200 backstroke. Photo courtesy of W&L Sports Info.

Caroline Blackmon

While most students were busy getting ready for Fancy Dress, six Washington and Lee swimmers were busy making a name for the Generals on the national stage.

Tommy Thetford, ‘18, and Emily Rollo, ‘17, headlined the NCAA Championship meet on March 16 through 19 for the Generals and brought back some hardware to prove it. Thetford won first-place in two events and Rollo earned All-American honors.

The women’s relay team also competed in Nationals. It’s the first women’s relay in W&L’s history to be invited to the meet and they competed in the 200, 400 and 800-yard freestyle races.

Thetford competed in the 50, 100 and 200-yard freestyle events. The event he had been preparing for all season, the 50-yard race, was his first event at Nationals… and the event where he felt he underperformed.

“I lost my mind on Wednesday with the 50,” Thetford said. “I felt like I came in with a target on my back.”

Thetford had a very successful season with the 50-yard sprint and earned the top seed. He said all of the pressures and expectations got in his head.

“I felt pressure, but after the 50, and taking a loss, it was a lot less stressful knowing that I didn’t really have that same target on my back,” he said. “I could relax and calm down and I wasn’t as worked up.”

Thetford rebounded, winning both of his next two events which were more unexpected wins. He said that he was able to get out of his own head and just enjoy the race.

“I had a lot more energy [especially for the 200-yard race] and I stayed calm,” he said. “I came in with a confident and calm mindset.”

Head Coach Kami Gardner said she was proud of the maturity Thetford showed after losing the 50.

“The measure of a champion is someone who can recognize things aren’t going to be perfect and sometimes you’re going to have to work within that imperfection to find your success,” Gardner said. “I was so incredibly proud of him for winning because that’s awesome that he was able to make those adjustments and for showing that he has earned the right to be where he was.”

Captain Billy Fries, ’16, said he is honored to have been a part of Thetford’s team and to help shape him into the swimmer he is today.

“You need the full team to be able to get as far as you do,” Fries said. “When you have people to train with and people to support you and people at the last home meet chanting your name, it takes you to the next level and you perform a lot better.”

On the women’s side of the meet, Rollo’s goal for Nationals was to make it to the finals for all three of her individual events. She succeeded, which was one of the reasons that she won All-American for the first time in her career.

She said that she is very proud of her accomplishments, but that she would not be where she is without her team.

“Every day, I trained the way I did because I have my teammates and everyone is putting in 100 percent during practice,” Rollo said. “Everyone’ success I think is partially because everyone gets excited for every swim on this team.”

Fellow teammate and relay competitor Elisabeth Holmes, ’17, said that she was excited for Rollo’s success at Nationals.

“It was great to see a teammate on the podium representing our team at Nationals,” Holmes said. “Next year we look forward to putting even more W&L swimmers up there.”

Though the relay team did not qualify for the finals, Gardner said the experience of going to Nationals is a good one for the relay team to have so that they can try to place next season.

Holmes said the experience of going to Nationals was different than any other meet she had ever competed in.

“Having faster competition that you haven’t raced against before makes the meet much more interesting,” she said. “I loved being part of three relays because we all had to work together to get there, so we were competing not just for ourselves, but for each other, which made it that much more fun.”

The next step for Thetford and Rollo is to continue training for next season and next year’s Nationals.

Though he isn’t positive, Thetford wants to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Working to post a fast enough qualifying time means training hard to compete in the Olympic trials this summer.

“I have to be one of the two best swimmers in the nation for my event,” he said “I don’t want to say that I will definitely be able to do it because the odds are not in my favor, but you never know how much you’ll improve in the future.”