The improvement NC State’s swim and dive team has seen over the last decade or so cannot be overstated. Ever since head coach Braden Holloway took over in 2011, the Wolfpack has dominated ACC championships — 70 individual champions, 43 relay champions and eight combined team wins is nothing to sneeze at.
Through the last half of Holloway’s tenure at NC State, senior Kylee Alons has seen the bulk of the team’s rise from an unranked program to one of the top swimming schools in the country. Hailing from Fort Collins, Colorado, Alons has managed to balance her rigorous schoolwork and the unforgiving schedule of a top-tier Division I swimmer.
“I think that’s what caught my eye about NC State; I was pleased at how good they were at engineering, even though I didn’t know what I was wanting to do,” Alons said. “I was really pleased with the coaches and the team, and I just felt like it was a driven team. … I felt like it was a team that I was gonna be able to help improve.”
Alons started at NC State in fall 2018, well after the beginning of Holloway’s tenure and fresh off the women’s first ACC championship since 1980. Her freshman year, the women’s team finished seventh at NCAAs — tying its best placement to date.
“Coming in, I was really excited to continue to build off of that,” Alons said. “That was a pretty good scoring, that was a pretty good placing for us. I think it tied our highest ever.”
It was only a matter of time before the women’s team pulled in more top-tier swimmers. Now-junior Katharine Berkoff joined the team Alons’ sophomore year, giving the Wolfpack an incredible backstroke leg for their already solid medley relay — which, in turn, would produce an NCAA championship just two years later.
“Since my freshman year, even before my freshman year, I think that everyone knew that there was something special going on at NC State,” Alons said. “You could tell just by the way people talked and the way that we set our goals.”
Completing an engineering degree at NC State is tough enough, but Alons has managed to do it all while waking up at the crack of dawn on weekdays to practice. Between 20 hours in the pool per week, a full course load and the need to sleep whenever possible, it’s incredible Alons has time to even think.
That being said, the team’s hard work usually pays off in the end. Even though the women’s team has faced some tough competition over the past few weeks, Alons said she appreciates a tighter race.
“I feel like everyone races better when you aren’t winning by a landslide,” Alons said. “I think that those teams definitely keep us humble and keep us, you know, willing to fight.”
That isn’t to say Alons doesn’t experience pre-race nerves. Being a member of one of the best swimming programs in the country can be intimidating, to say the least.
“I do get nervous, obviously, right before my races and before the relays,” Alons said.
“But I think that going into those meets, I’m usually pretty excited because I know that a challenge is pretty good. It definitely pushes you more than if you just go into a meet expecting to win.”
Behind all the glitz and glamor of a top program like NC State’s, Alons has seen her fair share of challenges— some personal, some team-wide. For one, it’s not easy to leave Carmichael in the winter after a rigorous two-hour swim practice to immediately get hit with what feels like temperatures in the negatives.
“Every year is always a roller coaster of you [breaking] your body down a lot,” Alons said. “You have to mentally stay positive and try to encourage your teammates and keep your teammates up when sometimes you’re feeling discouraged or you’re feeling really tired.”
Alons is planning to take advantage of a fifth year with the Wolfpack, thanks to the NCAA’s decision to give all winter athletes in NCAA Division I sports an additional year of eligibility. Beyond obtaining her master’s, Alons isn’t quite sure of her plans.
“I think when I came to college, I never really saw myself swimming past college,” Alons said. “It’s definitely a decision I don’t want to make too prematurely, so I haven’t really thought about it. I don’t know if I’ll really think about it until the end of next year, but I’ll probably just keep my options open.”
Alons, a 20-time All-American, five-time ACC champion and two-time NCAA champion, has had her share of incredible swims. However, she said her favorite to date was the record-shattering 400-yard medley relay that earned the women’s team its first relay title at NCAAs last spring.
“It was one of [my] fastest relay splits ever,” Alons said. “I went way faster than I’ve ever gone. It was so exhilarating. … Even before I jumped in the water, I was just smiling because I felt like it was going to be a special relay.”
The Wolfpack women can’t promise another NCAA title in March. However, with Alons at the helm, it seems extremely likely. Her leadership and talent will be sorely missed after her fifth year with NC State, but Holloway and the rest of the team has been incredibly lucky to have her for these past four years.
“As I’ve looked back on my past four years, I think the team has gotten closer,” Alons said. “We’ve been able to be better at motivating each other. We’re better at bringing in freshmen and helping them to transition and become a part of our culture.”