Before they held their first practice last fall, head swimming coach Lisl Prater-Lee and assistant coach Dan Koenig emailed every member of the team and asked them to list three goals for the season. They weren’t surprised by the response they received from Julia Cunningham ’17: “Nationals, nationals and nationals.”
Cunningham didn’t just reach her goal of swimming in the NCAA Division III championships. She exceeded it. She qualified for the nationals by breaking her own Vassar record in the 200-yard butterfly at the New York state collegiate championships in Rochester. In her preliminary heat at the NCAAs in Shenandoah, TX, Cunningham qualified for the finals by breaking the record again. And she smashed it a third time in the championship race, earning first team All-American status with a seventh-place finish.
Koenig says he isn’t surprised by any of Cunningham’s accomplishments. “I’ve stopped putting limits on what I think Julia can do,” he says.
Prater-Lee agreed. “Julia swam a smooth-controlled race in the prelims, and in the finals that night, she found another gear,” the coach says. “We’re proud of all that she’s accomplished. She’s a superb ambassador for the team and for Vassar as a whole.”
Ten days after the race, Cunningham was still having difficulty comprehending what she had done. After the championships, she took about a week off from her training regimen (“I ate lots of ice cream and cake”), but she was back in the pool as soon as she returned to Vassar from Spring Break. “It’s still hitting me that I’m an All-American,” she says. “But I don’t look at it as something I worked for. I love swimming.”
Which, apparently, was not always the case. Cunningham was born in China and was adopted when she was six months old. Her adoptive father had been a swimmer in high school and college, so after he brought her home to Yardley, PA, one of the first things he did was put her in a tiny bathing suit and take her to a pool.
“I’ve seen the photographs,” Julia says. “I was bawling. I was screaming. I hated it.”
By the time she was seven, Cunningham was swimming competitively in Yardley, and by her junior year at the Peddie School, she was one of the top swimmers, breaking the one-minute barrier in the 100-yard butterfly.
Her success continued in her senior year, and she knew she wanted to continue to swim in college. She was accepted to Vassar under the early decision program. “I chose Vassar mainly because I wanted a small, liberal arts school with top academics,” she says. “But I also loved the swimming program here.”
Prater-Lee says she knew she had a gem of a recruit the first time she met Cunningham when she was a high school senior, but when Julia visited the Vassar campus that fall, the coach let others on the team do most of the recruiting. “During her visit, she really hit it off with Luc Amodio (who was then a sophomore on the men’s team), so I just kind of backed away and let him do the talking,” she says.
Once Cunningham enrolled and began practicing with the team, Prater-Lee saw something special. “It wasn’t just her ability, it was her work ethic and enthusiasm,” the coach says. “She had plenty of raw talent, but she just worked so hard, I knew she was going to break some records for us.”
It hasn’t taken Cunningham long to fulfill that prophecy. In addition to her school mark in the 200 butterfly, she shares records with her teammates in the 200 and 400 medley relays and the 800 freestyle relay. She was named to the All-Liberty League team in four events and is a member of the league’s All-Academic team. In addition to her All-American performance in the 200 butterfly, she also competed in the NCAA meet in the 100-yard butterfly and the 400-yard individual medley.
As much as she loves swimming, Cunningham says she’s enjoying her entire Vassar experience. An assistant features editor for the Miscellany News, she plans to major in economics with a minor in Chinese. “It’s a challenge sometimes keeping up with academics during the season, and I can’t always meet with my professors during their regular office hours when we’re traveling,” she says, “but juggling swimming with school work and other activities is something I’ve done since I was little.”
Cunningham aims to return for more races in the NCAA championships in the next two years, but she says the first trip will always be special, in part because of how much support she received from her teammates. The entire team made a “Good luck, Julia” video that her coaches showed her when she arrived in Texas. The team gathered in front of a computer to watch her race via a live streaming of the event, and one teammate, Walter Gabriel ’17, who was home in Houston for Spring Break, drove to Shenandoah to watch the race in person.
“I’m rarely speechless,” Cunningham says, “but I didn’t know what to say when I saw all the support I was getting. By the time I got on the blocks for the race, I was really relaxed. I just told myself to enjoy the moment.”
Koenig says he and Prater-Lee and the rest of the team will enjoy having Cunningham around for two more years. “She’s a great athlete, but she’s also a great teammate,” he says. “That support she received is what we’re all about as a program, and Julia would do the same for anyone else on the team in the same situation.
“And having an All-American here for the next two years isn’t a bad thing for recruiting, either.”