A ‘moment of magic’ for national champion swimming and diving team

Big Red Athletics
March 21, 2023

With a national title secured and her record-breaking swim complete, Tara Culibrk ’23 burst into tears on the pool deck.

Four years of emotions poured out inside the aquatic center in Greensboro, North Carolina, site of the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships. Her parents, who flew from Serbia to attend the meet, watched as Culibrk hugged Denison teammates in celebration of the women’s Division III title — the second in the program’s rich history.

“It was like a moment of magic,” said Culibrk, who set a Denison 100-yard freestyle record in her final swim. “There are no other words to describe it.”

In 2019, she made one of the most important decisions of her life, traveling to Ohio and enrolling at Denison. Culibrk was impressed with the campus and the high academic standards, and the swimming and diving program clinched her decision.

“You could just feel the unity on the swim team,” Culibrk said. “You could sense the love and care they had for one another.”

That collective dedication drove the Big Red women to their first championship since 2001 and helped ease the sting from 2020, when one of Denison’s great teams was denied a title shot after the global pandemic canceled the NCAA meet.

Culibrk and Savannah Sargent ’23 were first-year qualifiers on that squad.

“It was absolutely heartbreaking, especially for the seniors,” Sargent recalled. “To win it this year and to have some of those seniors from the 2020 team in attendance was the best feeling ever.”

Denison qualified a maximum 18 swimmers and divers to the 2023 meet. The depth of talent proved pivotal in raising an NCAA banner that will hang in the rafters of the Trumbull Aquatic Center alongside the 2001 flag.

While the Denison women won only one event over the four-day meet — the 800-yard freestyle relay — they piled up points with an array of strong performances, including 21 top-eight finishes.

The team will be honored Thursday, March 23, with a championship celebration in Slayter Hall.

“We didn’t have star power on this team, but this is probably the deepest, most talented team that we’ve taken to nationals,” coach Gregg Parini said. “Our four senior captains (Culibrk, Sargent, Christina Crane, Emma Berdelman) did a remarkable job of galvanizing the team around the idea we could do something special.”

Money talks

There’s a dollar bill that hangs in a Minocqua, Wisconsin, dive bar that predicted this Big Red victory.

Crane and former team captain Ariela Katz ’22 were visiting Berdelman in August 2022 when they went out for drinks at the Little Brown Jug, a joint that’s literally wallpapered in cash. The swimmers added to the collection, scribbling a personalized note in black marker:

Denison Women’s
S & D 
Natty Champs ’23

“We manifested our national championship win right there,” Crane said, laughing.

Heading into this season, the Big Red had finished among the top-four teams at the NCAA meet for 13 consecutive years. That run included a third-place finish in 2022, when the women’s team went into the final day of competition trailing eventual champion Kenyon College by just four points before faltering down the stretch.

“That lit a fire under our butts,” Crane said. “We came back this year highly motivated.”

Sargent cannot recall a higher commitment level in her four seasons. Not only did the upperclassmen excel, but the Big Red enjoyed significant contributions from sophomores and first-year swimmers.

“As we were leaving the 2022 meet, we saw the Kenyon team jump into the water together,” Sargent said of the traditional championship celebration. “I told myself, ‘We’re going to be the ones doing that next year.’”

Wall of red

Michelle Howell Simonelli ’15 was in agony — and the pain had nothing to do with the $1,400 last-minute plane ticket she purchased from Durango, Colorado, to Greensboro on the eve of the meet’s final day.

Simonelli was laboring with a kidney stone. Her former Denison teammates, who had invited her to join them in North Carolina, could not believe she was going to fly in her condition. But that team unity Tara Culibrk speaks of extends beyond the current roster.

“For years now, we’ve had the largest spectator contingent at national meets,” Parini said. “It’s just a wall of red in those aquatic centers.”

Fortunately, Simonelli’s health improved. She passed the stone before boarding her first flight and arrived in Greensboro just in time to watch the final session of the meet.

“We always told ourselves we wanted to be there when the Denison women won the title,” said Emily Schroeder ’12. “Nothing was going to stop Michelle from going.”

Schroeder, Simonelli, and three other teammates watched the Big Red hoist the championship trophy. Among other alums joining them were Katie Sprague ’01 and Mollie Parrish Zook ’02 from the 2001 championship team, and Hugh Morrison ’20 and Kailia Byerly ’20 from the squad that saw its chance at glory dashed by the Covid-19 outbreak.

“It was good closure for us, especially since the seniors were first-year swimmers on our team,” Morrison said. “All in all, it’s totally deserving, and they should know how much love and support they have from the Big Red family.”

Two days after one of the greatest nights of their lives, the four captains sat in the Mitchell Center lobby and reflected on their four-year journey to the top of the NCAA medal stand.

“It took an entire year to get over the disappointment of 2020,” said Culibrk, a member of the victorious 800 relay team. “But our team never stopped believing in ourselves. The four of us held hands before we got up on the stand. It’s been such a ride, and it’s been all worth it.”

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