On Jan. 16, freshman Julia Cunningham of the women’s swimming and diving team broke a 10-year-old school record in the 100 Yard Butterfly. At the Seven Sisters Tournament less than one week later, she bested her previous record-breaking time in the 200 Yard Butterfly, remaining on top. The Liberty League has named Cunningham Rookie of the Week on two occasions, and she was also named to the All-Seven Sisters Team. The freshman from Yardley, PA has achieved all of this in the span of five months.
Cunningham started swimming when she was eight years old. “I was the kid whose parents threw me into a bunch of mini-league sports,” she explained in an emailed statement. “Swimming was basically the only one I was any good at. From then on, it just integrated itself into my life.” During her high school career, Cunningham was awarded the AAU Joel Ferrell Award in 2010 at the AAU Junior Olympic Games and also earned the Ballou Memorial Swimming Trophy in 2013. Cunningham eventually came to Vassar because she wanted a small liberal arts school with Division III athletics, but mostly because of her gut feeling about the college. “Coming to Vassar was very much a gut feeling. When I was on campus, it just felt like the right place to be. I looked at a lot of colleges,” she wrote. “It was very hard to isolate one thing about any of the colleges that stood out to me, so it basically came down to what felt ‘right.’”
According to Head Coach Lisl Prater-Lee and Assistant Coach Danny Koenig, Cunningham has integrated into the program very well. “[Cunningham] came to us in great physical shape and mentally prepared for a strong start to a college career,” wrote Koenig. “It became obvious to us very quickly that she was a great athlete and, more importantly, a tremendous worker.” According to Cunningham, the team practiced for a week before the September 30 season kick-off in order to prepare for the upcoming season. “To stay in shape…we had a few captains’ practices and, before that, the freshmen practiced together a few times as well,” she wrote. “Swimming definitely helped with my initial transition into Vassar. It was something that was very familiar to me from high school and, to be honest, it gave me an initial group of really close friends.”
In her second match of the season on November 9, Cunningham took the team to a 164-130 win over Skidmore College. She swam the 200 Yard Butterfly in 2:08.11, breaking an eight year-old record previously held by Katie Hickman ’05 (2:10.03). She received a NCAA provisional B qualification cut for this performance. She also got two first-place finishes in the 100 Yard Butterfly. On November 16, in a meet vs. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Cunningham swam 58.96 in the 100 Yard Butterfly, beating out the 10 year-old school record by Devon Chen ’03 (59.16). She also took first place in the 200 Yard Butterfly vs. RPI.
On January 19, the team finished third overall in the annual Seven Sisters Tournament held at Kresge Pool. Cunningham was named to the All-Seven Sisters Team after taking wins in both the 100 and 200 Yard Butterfly. She also broke her personal record in the 200 Yard Butterfly with a time of 2:06.44. According to Assistant Coach Koenig, “[Cunningham’s] performance at Seven Sisters was simply phenomenal. It was the first time we saw her take a big leap in terms of meet performance. That’s not to say she wasn’t meeting expectations prior to that meet; however, to string together a series of impressive races over the course of three difficult sessions was truly astounding.” He continued, “Despite coming off a school record-shattering race, she was able to turn around in a matter of minutes and grind out a second school and meet record-breaking performance. We trust in her ability to bring her best when asked and put the team above herself when it matters most.”
For Cunningham, she was not necessarily expecting such success at the Seven Sisters meet. “The first session on Saturday went well, but I wasn’t expecting to have an incredible meet. I definitely was nervous for the afternoon session: I had what I think of as one of the most strenuous events — the 400IM — immediately followed by the 100 fly. I barely had five minutes between the events. From the minute I dove in the pool for the start of the 400, however, I knew I would do well. When I finished, I was shocked to see that I had earned my second NCAA qualifying time by five seconds,” she wrote. “Not only that, I went six seconds faster than my fastest time ever and beat our school record by nine seconds. After that race, I was all adrenaline so I was really pumped for the 100 fly. I won the race and dropped almost a full second to get closer to an NCAA qualifying time. Despite winning and swimming a best time on Sunday for the 200 butterfly, the swim was a little disappointing: I had wanted to go a second faster than I did. I still had the most fun swimming this meet than I have before.” According to senior teammate McKenzie Quinn, “[Cunningham] raced one of the fastest girls at our Seven Sisters meet in the 400IM and they both ended up going best times and getting NCAA B cuts for nationals. It was one of the greatest and most exciting races I have ever watched.”
Cunningham also enjoyed the camaraderie of the tournament and getting to know swimmers from other schools. “The Seven Sisters Banquet took place Saturday after the first two sessions of competition were complete. No more than two swimmers from each team sat at a table to have dinner together. The banquet took place in UpC and was catered by Bacio’s,” she explained. “It was really great being able to speak with girls from other teams as real human beings in a more relaxed setting rather than as just athletes.”
Cunningham also enjoys the team aspect of the swimming and diving program at Vassar as well. “[Cunningham] is very team-driven. [She] does what she needs to do to get better but she does so in a manner that brings others with her,” explained Prater-Lee. “We have the team, too, that can be very supportive…of great swimming and diving and great people. So [she] has had a great season start, but part of that is a tribute to the team, too.”
Cunningham herself and the team’s coaches expect much more in the upcoming matches and in the rest of the season. “Julia has just scratched the surface of what she can do,” wrote Prater-Lee. “We are all pointed forward and, with two more meets and some rest, we look forward to a great four-day UNYSCSA championships in February and NCAAs in March.” According to Assistant Coach Koenig, “Furthermore, we believe that she can earn the right to compete against the best in the country at the NCAA Championships in March. As an athlete with her type of focus and dedication, reaching the NCAA Championships will be the goal every year.”