Newly-Crowned Big Ten Champ Nyah Funderburke Wants To Create Her Own Legacy

Ohio State sophomore Nyah Funderburke has had one of the most unique trajectories in recent college swimming history, rising from off-the-roster to Big Ten Champion in one season.

When Funderburke committed to Ohio State, her family had already left a mark on the school. 31 years before she brought home a Big Ten title herself, her father Lawrence Funderburke had done the same, being a star basketball player that led the Buckeyes to a a Big Ten title back in 1992 and eventually going on to play eight years in the NBA. 

But Funderburke isn’t just here to finish what her father started. In her two years and counting of swimming for Ohio State, she’s creating her own Funderburke legacy—one that began when she was an unranked recruit left off the 2022 Big Tens scoring roster, has progressed to when she became a 2023 Big Ten champion, and could finish with even more remarkable accomplishments earned down the road.

The Backstory

Nyah Funderburke‘s Ohio State commitment photo, June 2020

Up until Funderburke was a junior in high school, she didn’t even focus on the 100 backstroke—the event that she ended up winning a Big Ten title in as a sophomore in college this season. In fact, she considered herself more of a butterflyer and sprint freestyler. Back then she was good at both disciplines, winning an Ohio high school state championship title in the 50 free and holding best times of 23.46 and 55.78 in the 50 free and 100 fly respectively as a sophomore. However, her capabilities in those events were nowhere near the level she’d eventually reach as a backstroker.

“In high school, I definitely liked freestyle and butterfly,” Funderburke told SwimSwam in a phone interview. “But, I kind of swam the 100 back one day at a regular meet and decided, oh wow, I’ve got great underwaters and good power. It’s important to have a good kick as well and that’s something I was strong at too. So that’s kind of like the turning point where I was like okay, I’m gonna start training backstroke.”

Funderburke’s increased emphasis on backstroke training showed throughout her last few high school meets—her personal best in the 100 back was a 55.48 in the fall of her junior year, and she jumped to a 52.92 by the end of her senior year. And while 52.92 is a very respectable time for a high schooler (ranked 17th in the country amongst club swimmers for the 2020-21 season), Funderburke didn’t near that mark in her freshman season at Ohio State. Her season-best heading into the 2022 Big Ten Championships was a 54.51, and she was left off the scoring roster for conferences, meaning that she could only swim prelims as an exhibition swimmer and wouldn’t contribute points for her team.

The truth is that Funderburke is a “big meet swimmer”, one that doesn’t go super fast in-season but breaks out at a championship meet. But at the time, the swimming world didn’t know that.

“I’m definitely more of an end-of-season swimmer because my body needs a lot of rest,” Funderburke said. “And when I get that rest, I actually do surprise myself and I surprise my coaches.”

“I try to tell myself and tell my coaches, like, even if I’m not swimming the time that I want in season, that end at the end of the season, like, trust me, you’ll be happy with my results and I’ll get the job done.”

Nyah Funderburke, 2023 Big Tens

Funderburke did, in fact, get the job done last year—she swam a time of 51.62 in Big Ten prelims and was the top seed, but couldn’t advance to finals because she wasn’t on the scoring roster. Her time would have finished second in the finals of that meet, only behind Phoebe Bacon‘s 51.58 which won the whole race.

“We had built the team for team depth at the Big Ten meet. Scoring changed last year and we had to make tough decisions with a lot of unknowns,“ Ohio State head coach Bill Dorenkott said back in 2022 regarding the decision to leave Funderburke off the scoring roster.

“We preached to the team all year that we would not get it exactly right. Obviously, we missed on not putting Nyah on the scoring roster. We also told the team that we would have NCAA qualifiers off of the non-scoring roster…Nyah proved us right.”

Thankfully, Funderburke was able to qualify for the 2022 NCAA championships with her exhibition time, but that meet ended up just being another case of what-could-have-been for her. In prelims, she tied UNC’s Sophie Lindner for 16th in a time of 51.83, which means the two swimmers had to do a swim-off for the last spot in the ‘B’ final. Funderburke lost that swim-off and was shut out from a second swim, but she went a best time of 51.55, which would have been fast enough to final had she swam the time in prelims.

“It was definitely kind of a heartbreaker for me,” Funderburke said of the swim-off. “I’m a person who looks at swim offs and I’m like, ‘dang, I don’t want to be in that’. And I really wished I would never be in that. And then, it happened.”

“I think that was a very good testing point for me, mentally and physically. And racing with [Lindner] right next to me was honestly a great experience.”

A lot of Funderburke’s breakout success in her first year of college was attributed to overcoming what she calls a “freshman wall” that she had hit. That wall, she says, was partially caused by the struggle of adjusting to collegiate athletics, where one has to simultaneously balance school and 20 hours of training every week.

“You can either push through the wall or or fall down the wall,” Funderburke said. “And I think I had a pivotal moment of working through negative thoughts and outcomes rather than against them. College athletics is all about finding your way from discomfort to positive progress, and throughout those times of training and leading up to Big Tens and NCAAs, I really tuned into what I needed to do and got the job done.”

Freshman to Sophomore Transition

It’s not an understatement to say that a lot changed for Funderburke from her freshman to sophomore year, both for herself and Ohio State. Some of these changes included a near-complete change in coaching staff, as the Buckeyes came into this season with a new associate head coach and three new assistants.

Funderburke and her teammates, 2023 Big Tens

A change in coaching staff meant changes in training. Specifically, the 100 and 200 pace workouts that Funderburke began to do on Tuesdays and Thursdays helped her simulate a racing experience, as she was doing short sprints on little rest that would help simulate the fatigue coming from an actual race.

In addition, the graduation of Emily Crane, Ohio State’s ‘A’ backstroker for the last two seasons, meant that Funderburke would be taking her spot.

“[Crane] definitely set me up so great to be where I am now,” Funderburke said. “Pacing and racing with her in a positive and challenging environment really helped me push through to be the top backstroker this year.”

Replacing Crane was just one of the ways Funderburke’s mentality changed following her breakout swim last year. The two other things she gained were increased confidence in her abilities, as well as more awareness of her technique. In particular, she decided to emphasize the thing that made her realize she wanted to focus on backstroke back in high school—her underwaters. They were her superpower.

“I know that’s my strong suit, and that’s where I can really get people,” Funderburke said of her underwaters. “I know I have a weapon here and I’m gonna use it to my best advantage. I want to pace with the girls right beside me, but know that I have an advantage and a strong suit that is stronger than theirs.”

Funderburke’s sophomore season began in a similar manner as her freshman year—she was well off her best time in the 100 back and went 52.67 during midseasons. But headed into Big Tens this year, people knew her story from last season and they knew not to underestimate her. She was aware of it too.

“Going into the meet I had known that my name was out there and I would be receiving a little more attention from other teams and the media and whatnot,” Funderburke said. “And to me, that can kind of be a big pressure point. But honestly, I took it this year and I embraced it—I knew that the hard work and the training we were doing leading up to [conferences] would all pay off in the end.”

It did pay off for Funderburke at 2023 Big Tens. She surprised herself in the 100 back prelims by setting a best time of 51.44 and being the top seed, and this time around she could actually make it back to finals. And in the finals, she came out on top again, clocking a 51.52 to beat the field and earn the crown of Big Ten champion.

In her race, Funderburke beat defending champ and Olympian Phoebe Bacon, a swimmer that she slowly built up the confidence to race against throughout her season. “It was honestly such an honor and blessing to race against her this year,” Funderburke said of Bacon.

At Big Tens, Funderburke exceeded all her expectations in the 100 back, as coming into the meet her goal was to get top three. In addition, she also saw big jumps in her sprint freestyle, placing fifth in the 50 free with a time of 21.95 and going sub-22 for the first time in her career, which was a “dream come true” for her. She scored 64 points to help Ohio State win their fourth-straight team title, and her performances in the sprints have now made her a staple on the team’s medley relays, as well as their 200 free relay.

“I like to stay as humble as I can whenever I swim,” Funderburke said. “I think I kind of low balled it a little bit this year, and I really surprised myself.”

“I definitely wanted to hit under 51 [in the 100 back], but maybe you’ll see that at NCAAs coming up.”

The Funderburke Legacy

Ohio State 2023 women’s Big Ten Champions

Funderburke’s accolades of being a Big Ten champion and NCAA qualifier weren’t something that she foresaw coming out of high school. She was an unranked recruit, and didn’t know what to expect at Ohio State—being in the recruiting process amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, she felt like she “blindly” committed to the school, largely because she grew up in the Columbus area and because her dad was an alum. She didn’t even go on a recruiting trip.

“My expectations were very iffy coming out of high school,” Funderburke said of her Ohio State experience. “But I am 100% happy with my decision now, because of the program and because of our team culture.”

And what about her dad? Funderburke acknowledges that he’s had a big influence on her life, and she relates to his experiences of having pressure as a collegiate and professional athlete. “He has always pushed me to become the best version of who I am,” Funderburke said.

“Family plays a big part in [my career],” she added. “Coming from where my parents were, they never had the childhood experiences and support that I have had, so my legacy isn’t only dedicated to my individual accomplishments, but also through my family as well.”


However, Funderburke doesn’t only want to be associated with her dad—she wants to create her own mark.

“A lot of people when they first come up to me, they’ll ask me about my dad.” Funderburke said. “But I’m like, no. I’m here and I’m swimming. I would say that I myself, individually, have found my own niche being here at Ohio. I’m continuing the Funderburke legacy, but I’m also writing my own Nyah Funderburke legacy.”

Funderburke celebrating at the 2023 Big Ten championships

And what is that Funderburke legacy? She’s not entirely sure of where her swimming career will take her, but one goal she has in mind is to motivate other black female swimmers like her, a demographic largely underrepresented in the sport, to pursue success.

“At Big Tens, I saw a couple other black girls,” Funderburke said. “I wanted to go up to them and be like, ‘hey, it’s good to see you here.’ I’d like to inspire other black female swimmers to take charge and break stereotypes, and push to their dreams and goals that they have.”

While Funderburke has already completed a remarkable journey from being left off the conference scoring roster to a Big Ten champion in one year, she’s not finished—this won’t be the last you’ll see of the Funderburke legacy.

“High school me would look up to me now and be like, Nyah, you’re doing good,” Funderburke said, “But you’ve got more to do.”

In This Story

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1 year ago

This is such an awesome article! Thank you for this piece Yanyan and I’ll definitely be rooting for Nyah throughout her career!

1 year ago

What an interesting and inspiring story! Way to go, Nyah!

Last edited 1 year ago by Glmy
Mark Twang
1 year ago

Great name. Terrific story. Go Buckeyes!

NornIron Swim
Reply to  Mark Twang
1 year ago

So many good options…

Welcome to the FunderDome.
Nyah : Love and Funder

The list could go on. 🤦‍♂️

Old Swim Coach
1 year ago

Her dad broke many IU hearts by transferring to OSU. Great to see his daughter doing so well!

1 year ago

Thank you Yanyan for this lovely article!

1 year ago

Love this! Thanks so much for this article.

tea rex
1 year ago

Excellent article. I’d love more of these get-to-know-the-swimmer articles.
I have to ask since her dad was in NBA (6’9 according to wikipedia) – how tall?

Reply to  tea rex
1 year ago


(Mom is not very tall – don’t have an exact height for her, but looks like maybe 5’6 or so when standing next to dad?)

Reply to  Braden Keith
1 year ago

That instagram photo makes her look 5 2″ like a gymnast or cheerleader.

Old Bruin
1 year ago

Great story and beautifully written. GIVE YAN YAN A RAISE! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn't the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming by being her high school swim team's manager for four years. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in January 2022, where she hopes to contribute to and learn more about …

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