Fall sports are put on hold, but Nevada swimming sensation Donna dePolo is keeping busy—both academically and athletically.
The Nevada women’s swimming and diving season is delayed until the spring, giving dePolo time to stay in shape during her senior year as a physics major. Whether it’s in the pool or in the classroom, dePolo is staying focused in these uncertain times.
“We’re all sort of sitting tight and hoping for the best,” she said. “I’ve been doing my best to stay in shape while studying to help the team whenever I can, I’m here for everyone.”
During her three years at Nevada, it’s difficult to judge if dePolo’s academic or athletic achievements have been more impressive. She earned two silver medals in the Mountain West Championships last season and has racked up four all-conference honors. dePolo qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials at 17 years old, and qualified again last season in the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke before COVID-19 canceled all spring sports in March.
Academically, dePolo was amongst 92 Wolf Pack athletes to earn the MW Scholar-Athlete award last season. To be eligible, student-athletes must complete two academic terms while maintaining a grade point average of 3.5 or better. dePolo posted a 3.92 cumulative GPA and is a member of the university’s Honors College.
Heading into her senior year, dePolo’s schedule is filled with courses such as thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and atmospheric science. She is putting research together for her thesis regarding radio observations of black hole x-ray binaries.
“I’ve been working throughout this pandemic to get my research gathered,” she said. “I’m in a good place right now and I’m hoping to carry through. If we’re not training as much this fall, it’ll give me more time to study and I’m excited for that.”
Swimming and academics have blended together for dePolo during her career at Nevada. Both endeavors offer unique challenges that push her physical and mental limits.
“It’s always a balance between academics and swimming,” she said. “Fall is usually a busy time between both aspects of my life, but you keep going. It builds that rigorous workload, but we’re all going through it as a team and as students.”
As a Reno, Nev. native, the natural landscape shaped dePolo’s interest in astronomy at an early age. She has plans of earning her master’s degree to further her studies in astronomy and astrophysics.
“I’ve always been passionate about astronomy,” she said. “Growing up in Nevada, you always get to see the stars and some of these amazing sights. That really inspired me to track the planets and it stuck with me.”
Attending the University of Nevada, Reno has remained a dePolo family tradition. Donna’s parents, Craig and Diane, went to the university and both work as scientists. Her two older sisters, Paige and Gwen, graduated from Nevada and are pursuing their doctorate degrees in Scotland and Northwestern.
When dePolo graduated from Bishop Manogue High School, she received athletic offers from several schools including San Diego State and Boise State. But she stuck to her local roots after a face-to-face meeting with head swimming and diving coach Brendon Bray.
dePolo and Bray have developed a strong relationship since, and it translated to immediate success with the program.
“There was a lot of traditional appeal for me, but I really got to know coach Bray,” she said. “When I met him, something clicked and I knew I could swim well for him. That kind of instinct didn’t come with the other colleges … It just felt right academically and athletically.”
Along with her dominance in the pool, Bray has taken note of dePolo’s academic prowess. Fulfilling the requirements of an academic and athletic schedule is difficult to manage, but dePolo makes it look easy.
“She’s just an incredibly well-rounded person and I’m so proud of what she’s been able to do,” he said. “She is involved in school and has big plans, yet she always takes the time to help the team and lead by example. We’re lucky to have her on our team and at this university.”
If and when the Nevada women’s swimming and diving team returns to the pool, dePolo is expected to be a major contributor. She finished fourth with a career-best time of 2:11.58 in the 200 meter breaststroke last season. The 5-foot-7-inch swimmer was named MW Swimmer of the Week for Nov. 4, 2019.
Bray’s high expectations of dePolo can be one of the leading factors to a Mountain West championship.
“She’s been able to raise her performance each year,” he said. “The amount of work she puts into her craft shows and she’s become one of our impact athletes.”
COVID-19 has impacted dozens of athletes at Nevada, and dePolo is no exception. She was scheduled to compete in the NCAA Olympic Trials before her season was canceled in March.
Despite the obstacles, dePolo has used this time to sharpen her mental and physical edge. With an even stronger mindset, her future in and out of the pool is as bright as the stars she studies.
“This has taught me to make the most of my time for studying and training,” she said. “It’s helped me learn more about myself and how to cope with challenges so it is a learning experience.”