Swimmer Makes Mark on NCAA Championships

Julia Knox was GW’s first women’s swimmer to make the national competition since 1995.

March 22, 2023

Julia Knox competes in the 200 meter breaststroke. (GW Sports)

Julia Knox competes in the 200 meter breaststroke. (GW Sports)

Julia Knox did something last week no women’s swimmer at the George Washington University has achieved in 30 years: She represented the university at the NCAA championships, making her mark on a national competition that hasn’t seen GW women swimmers in the race since Bambi Bowman and Meghan Mitchell competed in 1995. (Diver Katura Horton-Perinchief went in 2005.)

“It’s really exciting, and it’s made me really excited for the next couple years that I'm here,” said Knox, a sophomore majoring in exercise science.

In Knox’s final qualifying meet, she made the championships by shaving 5 full seconds off her time in the 400-yard individual medley (IM). That’s unusually impressive, head swimming and diving coach Brian Thomas said. “Most swimmers go to these last chance meets and do not get faster, so to be one of the few in the United States that did that was pretty special.”

Knox returned from the NCAAs having placed 24th in the 400-yard IM, 52nd in the 200-yard breaststroke and 46th in the 200-yard IM, the event in which she is the reigning Atlantic 10 (A-10) champion and holds a divisional record. (For sports neophytes, the A-10 is GW’s conference within the NCAA’s Division I.)

It’s a powerful foundation for an athlete only in her second year of college sports—and one who didn’t always have her sights set on high-octane American competition.

Growing up in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, Knox only began swimming because her older sister did. But it was soon clear she had a major talent—or, as Knox said with a smile, “I just kind of got good at it.” She began traveling for meets, including representing Ireland at the 2018 European Junior Championships. The COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing by the time Knox was ready to decide about college, and plenty of universities were interested. But GW had an edge in coach Thomas, who still remembers the conversation—a face-to-face Zoom on his in-laws’ back deck with Knox and her family.

“We have so many conversations with so many athletes that to remember a specific one that way is kind of rare,” Thomas said. But it was clear Knox was a special talent.

“Once I had talked to Brian, I was like, okay, yeah, I want to come [to GW],” Knox said. “Before Brian had reached out, I was really unsure about coming to America at all. But then it's just like everything kind of aligned. Everything worked out.”

Though Knox appeared relaxed and smiling before setting out for the championships in Knoxville, Tenn., achieving that calm was hard work. She trains for about 20 hours a week, in addition to balancing her academic and social commitments. “I do stress a lot,” she said.

But Knox said the camaraderie she shares with Thomas and her fellow swimmers is a powerful remedy for anxiety. She said she had a rough start to her season this year, “a really awful time,” and wasn’t sure how the rest of the year would go. But her teammates’ unconditional support “really kept me here and kept me going.”

“Everyone’s coming over and hugging you, and no matter how you swim, it doesn’t make a difference about how people will support you or how people feel about you,” Knox said.

Thomas agreed. “We take a lot of pride in allowing our athletes to be themselves, and we want to be the kind of place where you can feel comfortable coming in and doing that, and Julia is a good example.”

Though Knox said she sometimes misses home, she’s happy and excited about her future at GW—and glad to experience the collaborative “team aspect” of her chosen sport, having grown up in a swim culture she said was more “individualized.”

“Just being from a different country, I think, makes me appreciate the experience here more,” she said.