Ask anybody, and they’ll tell you that college is the time to change who you are.
But Penn swimming phenom Virginia Burns didn’t foresee the transformation she would undergo.
When the sophomore sensation arrived on campus last year, she was a mid-level recruit for the women’s swimming team. Her strongest events were the 50- and 100-yard freestyle races, but something wasn’t right. As she and her coach agree, she wasn’t quite tapping into her full potential.
“We saw that last year,” coach Mike Schnur explained. “She had a class conflict, and in the fall, there was a day of the week where she couldn’t come to women’s practice. She would come train with the guys. And she would end up getting in the distance men’s lane, because that was the only workout that would be appropriate for her.
“She would train with [star men’s swimmer Chris] Swanson’s group, and she liked it! She started to swim really well in there, so we said, ‘You know what, let’s see what you can do in women’s workouts.’ And she just took to it pretty quickly. So we thought that maybe her future wasn’t in the 50 anymore.”
Schnur gave Burns her chance in the Total Performance Invitational at Kenyon College in December, and she took it with both hands. The then-freshman finished second in her first-ever 500 free with a personal best of 4:54.43 — an incredible time for her debut in the event. In fact, that time was seven seconds off from the B-cut for the NCAA Championships that season.
The rise to the top for Burns had only just begun. She would continue to surge on in the pool, ultimately finishing the season with an individual Ivy title and a personal best of 4:45.67 in the 500, just a couple of seconds shy of earning an invitation to NCAA’s.
Schnur was surprised at how good of a distance swimmer Burns turned out to be.
“If you had asked me when I was recruiting her if she’d be this good, I would’ve said you’re crazy,” Schnur said. “We’ve seen her develop over the last year fantastically, but in the beginning of her freshman year, no, I wouldn’t have expected her to be this good in the 500. I saw the speed in the 200 and 100, but I’m very pleasantly surprised to see how good she is in the 500. I wish I could get her to do a mile!”
Despite the initial appearance that the transition to long distance came naturally to her, Burns didn’t see it as seamless.
“It’s really weird,” she said. “I talk to my friends from home and look back on my high school team and all that, and I talk about how my training is so different and how I’m basically just a different swimmer now. They’re definitely two entirely different worlds.”
Sprinters and distance swimmers rarely compete in both types of events, essentially because they require such different skill sets. The main difference between the two is the degree of endurance required in the distance events.
Since she first began competing in the distance events during her freshman year, Burns discovered that her competitive personality might even be better suited to longer races.
“I’m pretty stubborn,” Burns said. “I don’t like to see people get too far in front of me. I’m a good catcher.
“For example, on relays, if we’re ever behind, it’s all about catching that girl in front of me. So with distance events, it’s basically one long relay, and I don’t want to be last.”
She does not want to be last — or even second. But winning isn’t the only thing Burns brings to the team. She brings that winning mentality not only to meets, but daily in the team’s practices.
"[Her impact] is not just at meets,” Schnur said. “I mean, yeah, she wins most of her races. But she sets a great tone every day in practice. She works hard. And she works hard every day.
“What Virginia brings to the team is consistency — she never has a bad day. She comes in and kicks butt every day, and she’s really fun to watch.”
Hard work like that combined with her talent often results in success. For her, that standard lies in an invitation to the coveted NCAA national championship meet. Qualifying for nationals means either making an NCAA A-cut or being selected as one of the 328 women invited to the meet who have swum B-cut time standards.
“I’d like to make NCAAs before I graduate,” Burns said. “That would be a complete grand expectation compared to where I was coming in as a freshman, so that’d be really exciting. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t, but it’d be nice.”
The humble sophomore is working to make that dream a reality, having already surpassed this season’s B-cut.
“I’ve made the B-cut,” Burns said. “[Getting an invitation] also depends on how the rest of the country does, what kind of year it is with which events, but nothing is impossible.”
For now though, Burns has to focus on claiming an Ivy title in her events. The swim team is already in Princeton, N.J., preparing for a three-day Ivy Championship meet that starts on Thursday morning.
“She’s done everything we’ve asked of her all season long,” Schnur said. “She’s been fantastic from day one, and hopefully her Ivy will be equally great.”
With a winning attitude like hers, it’s hard to imagine any other outcome.
“When you looked at her in high school, there was something about her that we knew she’d be a good swimmer,” Schnur said. “[Assistant coach] Marc [Christian] and I loved her attitude, and we love the kind of person she is.
“To see how she’s developed as a swimmer is really gratifying.”