The extra fifth year of eligibility, which was created by the COVID-19 pandemic, has extended the collegiate careers of NCAA student-athletes all across America. Fifth years aren’t really a topic of discussion amongst many of the NCAA’s top athletes in football, basketball, and baseball, as many of those athletes have six-figure professional contracts waiting for them. However, the reality for most student-athletes is that college sports will be the pinnacle of their athletic career, and a fifth year gives them one more season to experience those highs.
In this article, we highlight five different swimmers who saw or will see major changes in their athletic career because they chose to take a fifth year, and they share what gaining an extra season meant to them.
Maggie MacNeil: A Self And Team Transformation
The addition of Maggie MacNeil to LSU as a graduate transfer was one of the biggest storylines of the 2022-23 NCAA season, as she had taken the program to heights that they had never seen before. Joining the squad to reunite with her former coach Rick Bishop, MacNeil helped the Tigers to SEC titles in the 200 and 400 free relay—their first SEC relay titles won since 1986. She also qualified LSU’s first relays to NCAAs since 2016 and scored 53 of the team’s 112 points to lead them to a 13th-place finish, which was their highest since 1993.
It is clear that MacNeil’s arrival helped LSU on a massive upward trajectory. However, her fifth year affected her in a more personal way too.
In her four years at Michigan, MacNeil put pressure on herself to help her team win a Big Ten team title every season, which “took a toll on [her] emotionally” Coming into Michigan, the team was riding off a three-year win streak, but they lost to Indiana in MacNeil’s freshman season. Then, they proceeded to finish behind Ohio State for the next three years.
MacNeil was so consumed by this team goal to the point where her individual accomplishments, which included two NCAA titles and an NCAA record in the 100 fly, felt like “just a bonus”. However, at LSU, MacNeil didn’t feel the same expectations.
“[The Big Ten title] was my only goal going into college swimming, and I didn’t really how much that team goal took on me emotionally until this year. [At LSU], coming in as the underdogs of the SEC, we knew we had nowhere to go but up,” MacNeil said. “Getting to lead this new era of LSU swimming has been amazing. We had a goal to win the 200 and 400 free relays at SECs, and we knew for us to achieve these wins everything would have to go perfectly. In my experience, nothing ever goes to plan, but for us at SECs it did.”
A fifth-year also gave MacNeil the opportunity to end her NCAA career on her own terms, which she didn’t feel like she did her senior season. At 2022 NCAAs, she had a disappointing performance to her standards, being off her best times and even missing the ‘A’ final in the 100 free. However, she bounced back at 2023 NCAAs, winning and breaking the US Open record in the 50 free while also taking second and PRing in the 100 fly and placing third in the 100 free.
“If I had ended last year, I would’ve felt unfulfilled like there was something left. Although I didn’t have the greatest results at NCAAs, I learned a lot about myself,” MacNeil said. “This year has been amazing and being back with Richard [Bishop] was exactly the motivation I needed. He always pushes me and holds me accountable to achieve things I would’ve never though possible.”
Outside the pool, LSU also changed MacNeil—her time in Baton Rogue also taught her how to have fun.
“Over the course of one short season, I have made so many new friends and really came out of my shell. For the longest time, I have only ever thought about swimming and school,” MacNeil said. “It wasn’t until this year that I’ve been able to do things outside of these two aspects of my life. The southern culture has been a complete 180 from both Canada and Michigan.”
“I am beyond grateful to have finished college swimming on my terms while being the happiest I’ve ever been. This was arguably the most fun year of my college career, and I definitely made the most out of it.”
MacNeil will remain at LSU to train with Bishop in preparation for the 2024 Olympic Games. And while she only swam collegiately at LSU for one year, it is clear that she has found a new home in the program and school.
Van Mathias: The Surprise Breakout
At 2019 and 2021 NCAAs, Van Mathias didn’t make it out of prelims in any of his events. In 2022, he failed to even qualify for NCAAs individually, only swimming relays at the meet. He was a butterfly and IM specialist, swimming the 100 fly, 200 fly, and 200 IM at all of his championship meets, but saw very limited success. However, after making the shift towards sprint freestyler and breaststroke in his fifth year, Mathias broke out to become one of the best swimmers in the NCAA.
“I sat down with coach [Ray] Looze and decided that we were going to switch it up this year,” Mathias said. “I just really wanted to help the team as such as possible points-wise, and that happened to be in the sprint events.”
Mathias dropped over a second in his 50 free, over two seconds in his 100 free, and a whopping four seconds in his 100 breast to climb up the collegiate swimming rankings. At NCAAs this year, he finished 11th in the 50 free (18.91), 7th in the 100 free (41.39), and 2nd in the 100 breast (50.57) to score 35 points for Indiana and help them to a fourth place finish. In addition he also swam on the Hoosiers’ 800 free, 200 free, 200 medley, and 400 free relays that all nabbed top nine finishes.
Van Mathias‘ Time Drops, 2022-23 Season:
- 50 Free: 20.05 –> 18.89
- 100 Free: 43.70 –> 41.33
- 100 Breast: 54.75 –> 50.57
By taking a fifth year, Mathias got a chance to see what he was truly capable of as a swimmer and experience the highest level of collegiate sports. He differs from the other swimmers in this article in the sense where he didn’t have to transfer to see a change in himself, all he did was change events. Mathias’ breakout NCAA season goes to show a swimmer shouldn’t be pigeonholed to events that they “specialize in”, and that it’s never too late to switch things up.
“Swimming different events this year gave me a new challenge this year and a fresh perspective. I really got to enjoy swimming again and spice it up,” Mathias said. “If I didn’t take the fifth year, I think I would have been unsatisfied, but now I can look back and say I made the right choice.”
Mathias says that he’s done with competitive swimming “for now”, so he was able to end his career with a legacy that never would have been possible if it wasn’t for his extra season.
Tanner Filion And Katja Pavicevic: From DIII/DII To Power Five
Filion, a four-time DIII national champion out of Whitman College, is the perfect example of a swimmer who just needs the right resources to get better. He was an extremely talented swimmer prior to college, coming in with a best time of 53.34 in the 100 back despite only doing high school and summer league swim (not year-round) as a high schooler. After swimming full-time in college for four seasons, he lowered his PB to a whopping 45.75 at the 2023 NCAA Championships, breaking the DIII record and becoming the first DIII swimmer to go sub-46 in the 100 back. He also improved from a 1:48.51 his freshman season to a 1:41.17 his senior season in the 200 back, also setting a DIII record in that event.
Next season, Filion will move on from DIII swimming to join a rising Notre Dame program that just recorded their highest-ever men’s NCAA finish. And while he has seen great success in his time at Whitman, his fifth year gives him the chance to experience an entirely new and more intense culture of athletics at a Power Five school. In addition, with his times on the brink of DI NCAA qualification, he could get an opportunity to compete at the biggest college swimming competition in the country—something that he would have never been able to do without a fifth.
“I guess there was a silver lining from the pandemic,” Filion said. “I’m not sure what to expect at the D1 level, as I haven’t been exposed to that caliber of training. Obviously DIII is not as intense as DI, but I’m confident that it has given me the tools I need to succeed at the next level.
“I have always viewed swimming as an opportunity to get access to a higher education, and when the 5th year opportunity presented itself I had to take it.”
The fact that Filion chose Notre Dame over a traditional “blue blood” swim program speaks volume about upward trajectory of the school. On the men’s side, the fighting Irish are set to gain ACC champion Abelrahman Elaraby, who is also a graduate transfer. In addition, current Notre Dame swimmers like Chris Guiliano, Tate Bacon, and Tommy Janton also saw massive improvements over the last season.
“I really liked the team culture that coach [Chris] Lindauer is trying to build, I feel like it emulates my current team environment the best,” Filion said of why he chose Notre Dame. “Also, Notre Dame’s business school and alumni network are outstanding.”
Pavicevic, on the other hand, only got to compete at one NCAA Championship meet in her four seasons at UC-San Diego due to factors that she could not control.
When Pavicevic first came to UCSD in the 2019-20 season, they were still a DII program. In that season, she finished ninth in the 200 IM at DII NCAAs before the rest of the meet got cancelled due to COVID-19. However, in the fall of 2020, UCSD began its four-year transition from a DII to DI school that would end in the fall of 2024, and they were not eligible to compete at NCAA Championships. The timing of that transition wasn’t so great for Pavicevic, as in March 2023, she swam a 2:09.06 200 breast at the MPSF championships that would have qualified her for NCAAs.
But obviously, she couldn’t swim at the meet.
“It was definitely both challenging and frustrating, having that realization,” Pavicevic said of not being able to swim at NCAAs despite technically qualifying. “But there was nothing I could do about it after the fact.”
Originally, Pavicevic had entered the transfer portal at the end of her senior season to explore masters’ programs in public health. However, her 200 breast swim made her realize she was capable of swimming for a Power Five team, and she ultimately chose go to transfer to UNC for her fifth year. At Chapel Hill, she will make up for the losses of recently-graduated NCAA scorers like Grace Countie and Sophie Lindner and instantaneously see a big role on the Tar Heels’ squad, as her 200 breast time is over three seconds faster than UNC’s fastest swimmer from the 2022-23 season (Skyler Smith, who went 2:12.20 at the Tennessee Invite).
In addition, Pavicevic will get to reunite UNC assistant coaches Kirk and Kayla Kumbier, who were both at UCSD during the 2019-20 season.
“I’ve had a fulfilling career at UCSD thus far, but I’m ready to take the next step, especially after the conference meet I had this season,” Pavicevic said. “I’ve loved what UCSD and Coach Marko [Djordevic] have given me over the last 4 years, but the resources that Power Five schools like UNC have and dedicate for their athletes is something that I look forward to immensely. Hence, I’m looking forward to working with coach Mark [Gangloff] and his team, trying out a new style of training.”
Being deprived of an NCAAs swim last season only makes Pavicevic more motivated to make the most out of her only season at UNC, as she looks to go to her first national championship meet in five years. Again, only a fifth year would have given her this shot at redemption.
Jasmine Nocentini: One More Chance
Ever since Jasmine Nocentini transferred from Florida International to Northwestern, she has seen massive improvements in her times. She took down the Northwestern school record with a 21.59 50 free and dropped over a second in the 100 free to set a best time of 47.76, and more recently, she took up breaststroke and clocked a 25.7 50 breast split and 58.31 100 breast at the 2022 Purdue midseason invite. However, it still feels like we never got to see Nocentini’s full potential.
During the 2021-22 season, Nocentini scratched out of all of her events at NCAAs after being Northwestern’s top scorer at Big Tens. Then, in the 2022-23 NCAA season, a shoulder injury sidelined her from any form of championship meet—though her 100 breast and 50 free times from midseasons would remain ranking 10th and 11th in the nation even after NCAAs. Next season as a graduate student, Nocentini will be taking her talents to three-time national champions Virginia, where she will get a final chance to turn the potential she has into reality.
“I wouldn’t have felt complete without a fifth year because my college career was not a full four years,” Nocentini said. “I want to experiment a full year of swimming at the highest level possible which is something I could have not done without this extra opportunity, and maybe figure out if I would like to continue after college.”
“I think college athletes mature a lot as undergraduates and get so much in the college system, and a fifth year gives us the chance to explore additional possible good fits four our future goals in all areas.”
In addition to getting another shot at NCAAs, Nocentini is also gaining the special opportunity to swim for the best program in the country. While Northwestern is a very strong team in its own regards, the atmosphere of NCAA women’s swimming right now is very much Virginia vs. Everyone Else. As a Cavalier, and especially as a top sprinter, Nocentini has the chance to be on a potential national championship-winning team and multiple national championship-wining relays, which are experiences that very few swimmers in the NCAA get to live out. In addition, she’ll get a chance to train alongside names like Gretchen Walsh and recently turned pro Kate Douglass, who are two of the fastest sprinters in NCAA history.
“On the swimming side, I feel like there is a lot I have not achieved yet,” Nocentini said. “I wanted a school that could match my goals and be surrounded by teammates with the same drive and motivation. I do not think UVA is the only school with an amazing swimming/academic mx, but I feel like they are a perfect fit for me.”
However, it’s important to note that Nocentini didn’t just come to Virginia for it’s coveted swim team—the whole reason why she even left Northwestern in the first place was because they didn’t offer the graduate program she wanted. As a communications, entrepreneurship, and marketing major, she had the option of pursuing Northwestern’s Integrated Marketing and Communications graduate program, but it didn’t feel like a good fit for her because she had already taken the IMC certificate as an undergrad. When she entered the portal, she was drawn to UVA’s School of Commerce, which a big factor in her ultimate decision to come to Charlottesville.
Competing for the top team in the country with one final season to prove herself, Nocentini’s stint with Virginia will be a very exciting one.
Fifth years are obviously a controversial topic in swimming, with concerns regarding them taking up scholarships or being significantly older than a true freshman. However, it is clear from the stories of these five swimmers alone that one extra year can do so much, whether it be through giving them a breakout year, allowing them to achieve goals that they never got to accomplish earlier on, or developing them as a person outside the pool.
And while this article focuses on swimmers who have experienced or will experience fifth years, the COVID-19 year has made tremendous impact across all collegiate sports—especially in non-revenue sports where the pro life isn’t as ludricous as the NCAA scene. Since fifth years are more common in non-revenue sports, they do get talked about less in the grand scheme of college sports, but the opportunities that they have provided to student athletes all over the U.S. are immeasurable.