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By Brian Fees
Southern Tier Sports Report
As a freshman Sophia Verkleeren was a national runner-up, and watched teammates win national titles for Williams College swimming.

This year she had a goal to stand on top of the podium, and she was able to do that, and more in a year to remember.

The Williams College sophomore was the 2023 NCAA Division III Championship Swimmer of the Meet and the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America DIII Swimmer of the year.

She won a pair of national titles this year, in the 200 IM and 200 back, and she also had a third-place finish in the 400 IM.

Finishing as a runner-up at nationals last year just motivated Verkleeren going into this year.

“It was super exciting,” Verkleeren said. “I’m super happy about it. Especially because last year watching people win an NCAA title was so inspiring and so amazing to watch. Their happiness was contagious. Last year I left and knew my goal for this season was to win and I’m super happy I was able to accomplish this.

“I think getting second going into this year I knew I can do this if I put my mind to it. It’s something within reach for me. I think it definitely did give me some more motivation for this year.”

With Verkleeren winning national titles this year it is now 23 straight years that the Ephs have had a national champion.

For Verkleeren it’s special being part of such a successful program.

“Being a part of the team at Williams with people super dedicated to the sport keeps me motivated,” Verkleeren said. “My teammates, I look up to them in so many different ways, not just swimming. Personal ways and academic ways. It’s great to be in an environment to have teammates I can learn from. We build each other up and support each other and I have grown from having my teammates around me.”

A year ago Verkleeren watched another local swimmer, Molly Craig, a Notre Dame graduate, win a national title for Williams. That’s something that just really pushed Verkleeren this year.

“Watching specifically Molly Craig win her 400 IM last year was a significant moment,” Verkleeren said. “Because, she had so many struggles she had to overcome last year. To watch her win that was very special. Her reaction is something I’ll never forget. Watching the emotion she went through winning that played a role in inspiring me, especially because Molly is someone I looked up to as long as I’ve been swimming. Watching her win a national tile, I thought that’s really cool and I think I can do that someday too.”

For Verkleeren there has been so much growth as a swimmer since she got to college. A lot of that is the coaching in college, and the resources available as a college swimmer.

“It’s definitely a great feeling that I haven’t plateaued,” Verkleeren said. “There is room for improvement. When I was in high school with Thrashers swimming and Horseheads I knew I could handle more. I was always itching to get more training in and lifting in. That kind of extra training and extra coaching wasn’t available to me in high school. I think being in an environment with more resources, more training time, people equally dedicated to swimming as far as I am has helped me grow and get better.”

Verkleeren hopes that she can be an inspiration to area swimmers to show them what is possible. While she knows she comes from an area that doesn’t have huge meets just down the road, and multiple pools to use for high school and club swimming, she wants to show you can still compete with kids from the huge areas that have things like that.

“That’s what my hope is,” Verkleeren said. “I hope people from Horseheads see people like me and and people like Cullin (Cole) who are able to work hard and do well in their sport. I hope people can see that and have opportunities and realize your environment doesn’t define where you can go and what you can become.”

The Horseheads grad knows that it’s important for young swimmers to get out, swim against the best in the state, and nation, and work to get to that level.

“I remember when I was very young, I think around 11 or 12, I was winning in the STSL meets, which are the local club meets in the Horseheads area,” Verkleeren said. “I was winning every single event, I was kind of feeling I was great at the sport. Then my coaches brought me to a meet in Florida. I went to the meet and I got almost last in one of my best events. After swimming there I was like, shoot if you go outside your immediate bubble you will see there is a lot of competition. I think seeing there was competitive game me all the motivation to make myself a better athlete. It made me realize just because I’m winning these dual meets doesn’t mean I can stop working hard.”

Verkleeren knows Section 4 has a lot of amazing swimmers, and she hopes to see even more excel at the next level.

“The Horseheads/Ithaca/Southern Tier there is some young talent and there are young swimmers who have a lot of potential,” Verkleeren said. “We have had a lot of fast swimmers come out of the area. I’m thinking Jamie Lovett out of Ithaca, an NCAA record in the 200 freestyle (For Williams), Cater Anderson, NCAA finalist Logan Todhunter, who went to Williams; Molly Craig who was an NCAA Champion. You get a lot of stars with a lot of motivation and desire. There are a lot of young swimmers with a lot of potential, my hope is they look outward and realize there’s more to do outside of the Southern Tier.”

For Verkleeren she’s learned so much at Williams. While it’s a D3 school it’s D3 in name only.

“I think an interesting distinction between D1/D2/D3, Williams is a D3 school but it’s operating at a level that would be even with a lot of D1 programs. I was looking at a lot of D1 schools (out of high school). I thought Williams was the best fit for me. Great academic reputation. Really strong alumni network. The thing that brought me to Williams more than anything was the team culture.

“I could tell the team environment was unmatched. I think the environment here is the result of Steve Kuster’s unwavering determination to make us a family and hold us to standards. A lot about how I felt about the team was they would support me and the team culture was something I wanted to be a part of. As far as D1/D2/D3 I felt like Williams status as a D3 school, the D3 stats was not going to hinder my growth as an athlete. The division aspect of it didn’t play that much of a role. Swimming here was just as intense as the other D1 schools I was looking at.”

Verkleuren swam with Molly Craig in club swimming growing up. And, before she even got to Williams she had already seen Craig win a national title, and that was something that made her feel like she could do great things at the school as well.

“It was something I only thought was possible because I knew Molly did it,” Verkleeren said. “Coming into the program with the times I had, if I thought of the time aspect I thought it probably wasn’t all that likely. But, to my surprise I dropped a lot of time since I got here and I’m happy about it. Coming in as a freshman I knew it was possible, but based on my times I didn’t think it would be likely.

“It definitely feels surreal. I definitely was not expecting that to happen this season, to happen this season fuels me to keep going for next year. I want to do well for my teammates. I want to win a relay. I think that’s my next big goal. I want to win a relay for Williams and I want to do everything I can do to make that happen.”

Winning a national title as part of a relay would be special, and Verkleeren knows with multiple swimmers back from this year’s relay there will be big goals next year.

“Our medley relay there is me, Sam Kilcoyne, Amanda Wagner, we have a really solid medley relay,” Verkleeren said. “Relays are really special in swimming, swimming is an individual sport, but relays are something where you get a team aspect.

“Relays are something special because it’s something you’ve done together. Next year being Sam and Amanda’s last year I think it would be awesome to win a relay with them. And, also just enjoy my time on the team. This is a sport I love doing, surrounded by people I love and coaches I love and just enjoy the time and maybe make Olympic Trials, I think that would be cool.”

Making the Olympic Trials is something you have to do on the long course. The NCAA has a day where you can try and qualify.

“They have official times they released online prior, qualifying times you have to swim on a long course,” Verkleeren said. “The D3 NCAA has a day after Saturday of NCAA’s they have a time trials day to convert the pool to long course and people try and get qualifying times.”

For Verkleeren it’s hard to know exactly long course will go as she hasn’t swam that since 2019 when she was 16. She said there are conversions you can do to get an idea, but those conversions aren’t always accurate.

Verkleeren would love to make the Olympic Trials, but doing well again at nationals next year is more important.

“I think the NCAA Championship, the short course championship is more important to me than training long course,” Verkleeren said. “I hope it works out for me when I switch too long course, I”m not entirely sure how it will work, but I’m excited.”

Just being part of the Williams swimming history, and now being one of the swimmers to keep the national title streak alive is special.

“It feels amazing,” Verkleeren said. “It is something I have thought a lot about. I like to think I’m just playing my part in the legacy of Williams swim and dive excellence. It was something I thought of as I was finishing my 200 IM. I was about 10 yards from the end and I knew I was in the lead and I was like I need to win for coach, because coach has had an NCAA Champion every year he’s been here. That was something intimidating going into the meet, but super inspiring.”

Being part of the success of Williams is special, but it can also be a challenge to live up to the high standards the program has set.

“It’s intimidating having that kind of reputation behind your team, but I also think there is something beautiful of representing a long line of fast swimmers. I think there is something special about that too. Definitely something that is a big part of the women’s team culture at Williams. We talk a lot about the depth of our alumni and how they are all supporting us and we talk about the legacy of our team. We have over a 100 dual meet win streak that we haven’t lost yet. We have come really close to losing it, but for the women’s team I think we’ve got 118 straight dual meets. That’s something that’s one of those super scary things because you don’t want to be the person to break the streak. It’s super motivating and inspiring.”

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