The Case Of Virginia Fifth Year Ella Nelson’s Career Consistency & Dominance


Virginia fifth-year Ella Nelson has been a staple for the Cavaliers during her career, consistently being an ‘A’ finalist and more importantly a second-place finisher at NCAAs. With her specialties being the IMs and breaststroke, Nelson is a rare swimmer who has been at the top of all of her events every year but never won an individual NCAA title.

We often think of ‘dominance’ as the swimmers like Caeleb Dressel, Leon Marchand…Gretchen Walsh. Swimmers who just win and win and win again. But in a sport like swimming, where so much focus is on the individual but where teams still matter, there’s a certain je ne sais quoi about a swimmer like Nelson, who is so close to the top of the pyramid, so good, but just happened to run into a brick wall that captures us all.

Think Laszlo Cseh vis-a-vis Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte.

At Nelson’s first NCAAs in 2021, she finished 2nd in the 400 IM behind Stanford’s Brooke Forde, 2nd in the 200 breast behind NC State’s Sophie Hansson, and 5th in the 200 IM where Alex Walsh won. In 2022, she once again had three ‘A’ final swims finishing 3rd in the 400 IM behind Walsh and Forde. She also was 4th in the 200 breast and 8th in the 200 IM. Last year, Nelson finished 2nd in the 400 IM behind Walsh, 3rd in the 200 breast, and 4th in the 200 IM.

Ella Nelson attended Harpeth Hall School and swam for the Nashville Aquatic Club in Tennessee before Virginia – the same high school and club program that the Walsh sisters swam for. Nelson’s commitment in the spring of 2018 lit the fuse on what would become the Virginia dynasty.

She has consistently been at the top of the NCAA throughout her career but has not won an individual title. It is important to note her relay contributions to Virginia as well, where she has been a National Champion. She swam in Virginia’s winning 800 free relay in both 2021 and 2023.

This morning, she swam the 3rd fastest time in prelims in the 200 IM with a 1:53.05 behind only Alex Walsh and Tennessee’s Josephine Fuller. Nelson is also the #8 seed in the 400 IM tomorrow and #3 seed in the 200 breast on Saturday.

It’s rare for a swimmer to be as good as Nelson and win so many trophies, and maintain that level for a career this long without getting over the hump. We came up with a few comparable examples, like Florida’s Isabel Ivey who began her career at Cal. Ivey was 4th in the 100 back and 6th in the 100 fly at 2019 NCAAs. In 2021, she earned three A final swims finishing 3rd in the 100 free, 4th in the 100 back, and 4th in the 100 fly.

We couldn’t think of many other good examples, which shows just how unique Nelson’s success has been.

2022 NCAAs was her closest to winning an individual NCAA title as she was 2nd in the 200 free behind Taylor Ruck as well as 3rd in the 200 IM behind Alex Walsh and Stanford’s Torri Huske. Like Nelson, Ivey also helped her team to an 800 free relay title as Florida won the event just last night. Ivey will also swim in the A final of the 200 IM tonight and is the #3 seed in the 200 free tomorrow and the #2 seed in the 100 free on Saturday.

What if in a parallel universe they instead specialized in a different event and/or competed during a different year? Nelson isn’t going to leave her college career with any individual NCAA titles…but she’s going to leave with four team titles. And that’s what college swimming does so well – it creates a spot for unbelievably-fast swimmers who don’t win races to thrive. It creates space for the Scotty Pippens of the world and the James Worthys of the world to still be in the spotlight – something that’s often lost in international competition in swimming.

It helps us all reorient our perception of “success” in swimming, and maybe that’s the most valuable part of the NCAA. 4th place is not a failure at the NCAA Championships, it’s 15 points.

Kate Douglass ended her decorated NCAA career with 7 individual NCAA titles and countless records. That individual scoring added up to 174 points. But here’s what’s wild: Nelson (albeit with an extra meet because Douglass only got three championships versus Nelson’s four) is in all-likelihood going to score more individual NCAA points than Douglass did in her career.

She’s sitting on 138 entering Thursday’s finals, meaning she needs 36 to tie and 37 to pass. She has scored at least 42 points at each of her NCAA Championship appearances.

In This Story

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
HOO love
1 month ago

So happy Ella came back for a fifth year ⚔️💪🏼

nashville skyline
2 months ago

This article is SO deserved! The unsung hero of UVA’s success. & her leadership has surely added up to well over 42 points a meet

ACC fan
2 months ago

Sooooooo glad to see Ella get this recognition! She’s had an amazing career and on most other teams she would have been THE star. She’s been a huge part of UVAs rise. Oh yes, and she’s beautiful inside and out.

Last edited 2 months ago by ACC fan
2 months ago

Definitely a staple in the rebirth of UVA who has contributed so much to the program, including influencing the Walshs’ decisions to commit.

2 months ago

probably in the top 5 NCAA swimmers ever from her high school

HOO love
Reply to  jeff
1 month ago


2 months ago

After this meet finishes, it would be cool to see a historical scoring breakdown of maybe the top 50 swimmers who have scored the most individual points at an NCAA meet over their college career.

2 months ago

I remember Greg Meehan very emotionally talking about lia Neal her senior year basically saying “she was the first big recruit to give me a chance and without her taking that chance and succeeding here, we probably couldn’t have gotten Simone, Ella and Katie”, so even though Kia wasn’t the giant star they were (I mean she was in the Olympics so obviously amazing but she wasn’t breaking ncaa records left and right like the other 3) it feels similar here.

Ella wasn’t quite the superstar Kate and walshes are but she was kinda the first big name recruit to commit to uva when desorbo started. A little different since her and Kate were the same year but I looked… Read more »

Reply to  Klorn8d
2 months ago

I remember recording that interview with Greg. What a moment. This does feel very similar.

For those curious:

2 months ago

Would be an interesting article (and a lot of work for whoever puts it together) to see who’s A finaled in every event during their NCAA career in recent memory. I bet the list would be pretty short, rare for not one stumble. For example I know dressel did not.

Reply to  Klorn8d
2 months ago

what quantity would be considered short? And what time frame? I’m sure in the last 20 years there’s at least 15-30,possibly more.

Reply to  LBSWIM
2 months ago

I’d say averaging 1.5 people per year do accomplish a feat is pretty rare air.

Reply to  Klorn8d
2 months ago

Nelson, Walsh x2, Douglass, Berkoff, Regan Smith, Curzan, Eastin, Ledecky, Manuel, Dirado, Franklin I think is a near exhaustive list of women in the past 10 years who made 3 individual NCAA finals each year that they swam collegiately. Obviously not all swimmers here used up all 4 of their years

Last edited 2 months ago by jeff
Reply to  Klorn8d
2 months ago

It would be really hard to find them all. Finding a list of some examples isn’t particularly hard – you’re looking for swimmers who were really good as freshmen and stayed good, excluding breaststrokers (who often don’t have a good third event).

-Maya DiRado
-Regan Smith
-Missy Franklin
-Katie Ledecky
-Destin Lasco so far

Okay some of those are cheating…DiRado is especially impressive given that she came to Stanford at only 17.

The list wouldn’t be long but I think it wouldn’t be super-short either.

About Anya Pelshaw

Anya Pelshaw

Anya has been with SwimSwam since June 2021 as both a writer and social media coordinator. She was in attendance at the 2022 and 2023 Women's NCAA Championships writing and doing social media for SwimSwam. Currently, Anya is pursuing her B.A. in Economics and a minor in Government & Law at …

Read More »