Looking Back... Sue Walsh Found Swimming Success at North Carolina
Feb. 15, 2007
"Swimming may be the most demanding sport I know," says Sue Walsh. "It takes a huge commitment, physically, socially, psychologically. You swim twice a day, run, lift weights, make sacrifices. It takes time, it takes discipline. If you succeed in the pool, you know you've achieved."
Walsh should know. This week's ACC swimming and diving championships will probably produce a star or two but it's highly unlikely that anyone will shine as brightly as Walsh did a quarter of a century ago at the University of North Carolina.
Sue Walsh grew up in the lake-effects-snow community of Hamburg, New York, on the shores of Lake Erie, not far from Buffalo. She was the youngest of five children and a high-energy child. "I drove my parents nuts," laughs Walsh. "They had to find some way to harness my energy and swimming seemed like a good idea."
Walsh's father Bob was a swimming official, so the family knew its way around a pool. Walsh started swimming competitively when she was eight and ended up training at the Zwicker Athletic Club, about forty-five minutes away. Drive time and practice added up to a four-hour or so commitment, day after day, season after season. "You have to like the people you're with," says Walsh, "because you're with them a lot. The parents sacrifice so much time and energy."
It didn't take long for Walsh to make her mark. Like many youngsters, she swam different strokes at different distances. She won a national junior title in the 100-yard freestyle when she was 14 but was proficient in other strokes. "How do you find your best stroke? It picks you, you pick it. I'm not sure how it works. But I hit a plateau in the freestyle events and my backstroke times kept dropping. So the backstroke, it was."
By the time she was a senior at Mount Mercy Academy, Walsh was a superb student and one of the top prep swimmers in the country. Her coach, Jeff Zwicker, was a UNC grad and a former Tar Heel swimmer. Zwicker made sure that North Carolina coach Frank Comfort knew that Walsh was interested in coming South. Walsh says, "I knew a lot about UNC from Coach Zwicker but he really didn't try to influence me. He let it play out."
Walsh visited Chapel Hill in the fall of 1979. "I just loved the place from the beginning. Still do. I can't imagine having gone anywhere else."
Walsh had higher ambitions than college dominance. She had made the United States World Championship team in 1978. Her times in the 100- and 200-meter backstrokes were world class. Walsh arranged to graduate a semester early to concentrate on training. In January 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. The United States Olympic Committee ratified the decision in April.
"I didn't follow politics that much at 17," recalls Walsh. "My thinking then and now is that the entire country elects a president, so he makes decisions for the entire country and I tried to support the decision. I know he did what he thought was best but I'm not sure it made much difference. Still, it was terribly disappointing. But I was 17, so I figured I would have another chance." Walsh made the team in the 200-meter backstroke, making her an official Olympian, albeit one unable to compete in the Olympics.
Walsh arrived at UNC in the autumn of 1980. Comfort was in his fourth year as head coach. He says, "I had followed Sue's career for a few years, so I knew we were getting a good one. But I didn't know how good."
Walsh absolutely dominated ACC competition. She had no peer in the backstroke but also competed in the freestyle, the butterfly, individual medleys, and relays. Comfort says, "Sue was so team-oriented. She did what the team needed and was never a problem. She just stepped up and did the job."
What made her so good? Comfort says, "Well, first Sue had God-given ability. She had a great work ethic. No one worked harder. She had great ability to take care of herself away from the pool. But most importantly she had a tremendous ability to focus at exactly the right time. She concentrated her complete physical and mental abilities on every race."
Walsh adds, "Frank was the right coach. He emphasized quality over quantity. We never swam empty laps. Everything had a purpose."
The result was a resume that defies belief. In 1981 Walsh won ACC titles in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, the 50-yard freestyle, and a pair of relays, a six-title blitz that made her the Most Valuable Swimmer of the ACC Championships. She capped her first collegiate season with three AIAW national titles, winning the 50-yard backstroke in 25.97, the 100-yard backstroke in 55.60, and swimming the backstroke leg for UNC's first-place 200-yard medley relay team.
Walsh had a repeat in 1982. She duplicated her ACC titles in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard backstrokes and 50-yard freestyle and was a part of the ACC champion 400-yard medley relay team. The NCAA took over governance of women's college sports that year. Walsh says, "I was a little worried at the time. I feared that women's sports were going to be pushed aside. But it didn't happen. It worked out."
Walsh won NCAA titles in the 50-yard backstroke (25.64), the 100-yard backstroke (54.81), and the 200-yard backstroke (1:59.47).
Her junior year may have been her most memorable. She again captured the three backstroke titles in the ACC meet and added one in the 100-yard individual medley. Walsh also was part of the ACC title-winning 200-yard medley and 200-yard free-style relay teams and was named the Most Valuable Swimmer of the ACC Championships for the second time. She went on to successfully defend all three of her NCAA titles in Lincoln, Nebraska, winning the 50-yard backstroke (25.85), the 100-yard backstroke (55.62) and the 200-yard backstroke (1:59.05).
This NCAA meet was far from business-as-usual. Right before the meet began Bob Walsh told Comfort that there was a problem. His daughter had come down with a severe case of food poisoning. A less-determined athlete would have stayed in bed and felt sorry for herself.
Comfort says, "It was awful. Three days of nausea. But somehow she was able to summon her resources and not only compete but win against tough competition. It just shows how mentally tough she was."
Walsh adds, "By the end of the meet, I was just done. I had to dig very deep."
A week later, Walsh broke her American record in the 100-yard backstroke in the national championships. She finished the summer by winning a gold medal in the Pan American Games in the 100-meter backstroke; she finished second at 200-meters, behind teammate Amy White.
Walsh was a senior in 1984. She remembers feeling the pressure of keeping alive her record of never losing a college backstroke event but it didn't slow her down. Walsh repeated as ACC champion in the 100- and 200-yard backstrokes, captured the 100-yard freestyle, and swam a leg for UNC's 200-yard freestyle, 200-yard medley and 400-yard freestyle title teams. The 50-yard backstroke was eliminated, costing Walsh a likely victory. She was named the ACC Championship Most Valuable Swimmer for the third time in four years.
She ended her collegiate career with two more NCAA titles and kept alive her unbeaten backstroke record. Walsh captured the 100-yard (55.32) and 200-yard (1:59.84) backstroke championships and added to her long list of All-America accolades; she ended with 27 All-America designations.
The Olympics were looming, this time in Los Angeles. Prior to 1984, the United States sent its top three swimmers to the Olympics. Beginning in 1984 only the top two went. Walsh was the favorite in the 200 meters but did not swim her best race. She was out-touched at the end, missing second place by a gut-wrenching .01 seconds.
"It was devastating. It was my last chance and I knew it, so it was tough. But sometimes you have to value the journey not the destination. In the greater scheme of things, it's not that bad. Horrible, horrible things happen to good people, much worse than missing a team. If not swimming in the Olympics is the worst thing that happens to me, then that's pretty good."
Walsh was more than just an accomplished swimmer. Comfort says, "My parents were educators so I know something about academics. Lots of people claim to be great students but Sue Walsh was the real deal."
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in Business Administration/Accounting and was awarded the 1984 Patterson Award, given to UNC's senior athlete who displayed general excellence throughout his/her time at the school. The following year the NCAA presented Walsh with the Top Five Award, the organization's highest honor for student-athletes.
Walsh worked as a CPA for a few years but her alma mater beckoned. She came back as an assistant swimming coach in 1987, a position that Comfort says she filled with "the same dedication and focus she had as a swimmer." Two years later she took a position with the Educational Foundation, more commonly known as the Ram's Club. Walsh currently is Director of Endowment and Stewardship, smoothing out gift-giving to UNC athletics.
That sounds like enough to keep a person busy but the pool keeps calling. Walsh has three children, one of whom, Sarah Stankavage is a freshman at UNC and swims butterfly for the Tar Heels. Several years ago Walsh became active in age-group swimming and holds four North Carolina age-group records. She's also a certified official and an unofficial swimming mom to the UNC team. Comfort says, "I have no idea where she finds the time to do all this."
Walsh just laughs and admits "I do like to stay busy."
Comfort, who is set to retire after a 30- year-career at UNC, says "I've always been about the team, so I try not to compare our swimmers. But I don't have any trouble saying that Sue was and is truly special, in and out of the pool."
Walsh was named one of the ACC's top fifty female athletes and is a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. She says swimming helped her learn "discipline and time management. It didn't seem so bad at the time. It was who I was and it's helped me become who I am. I wouldn't have it any other way."
Jim Sumner's articles on southern sports history have appeared in the ACC Handbook, the ACC Area Sports Journal, Blue Devil Weekly, Inside Carolina, the Wolfpacker, Baseball America, Basketball America, and other publications. His latest book, Tales From the Duke Blue Devils Hardwood, was published in 2005. In his bimonthly column "Looking Back... by Jim Sumner", he will examine the rich history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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