The UNC Pembroke swimming team celebrates after winning the Conference Carolinas championship Saturday in Kingsport, Tennessee.
                                 UNCP Athletics

The UNC Pembroke swimming team celebrates after winning the Conference Carolinas championship Saturday in Kingsport, Tennessee.

UNCP Athletics

<p>UNC Pembroke swimming coach Oscar Roverato, right, speaks as swimmer Britta Schwengle, center, and moderator Alex Pearce, left, look on during the UNCP Coaches Show Monday at Wing Company in Pembroke</p>
                                 <p>Chris Stiles | The Robesonian</p>

UNC Pembroke swimming coach Oscar Roverato, right, speaks as swimmer Britta Schwengle, center, and moderator Alex Pearce, left, look on during the UNCP Coaches Show Monday at Wing Company in Pembroke

Chris Stiles | The Robesonian

KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Britta Schwengle already knows what she’ll think about when she hears Queen’s “We Are The Champions” for the rest of her life. She’ll think back to a moment at a pool in Tennessee.

Sitting in class at UNC Pembroke on Monday, the sophomore swimmer was still thinking of that moment from two days before and smiling.

“We felt completely united and we were pushing each other, we were yelling every time,” Schwengle said. “All of our voices are completely gone. We’re all raspy, we’re all just out of it, but it was an amazing experience. Everyone was in tears, I was over the moon, I’m still smiling about it.”

The Braves won the Conference Carolinas swimming championship on Saturday, winning the four-day meet held at the Kingsport Aquatic Center after a back-and-forth duel with runner-up Emmanuel.

“It was very tight; we had Emmanuel fighting back and forth, every race,” UNCP coach Oscar Roverato said. “We were able to win a couple of events, the first three events of the competition on Friday, we won the relay so we put ourselves in a good spot. We closed on (Saturday) very well; the girls performed very well.”

The Braves finished with 776 points, topping Emmanuel’s 727. Barton finished in a distant third with 421 points.

A key moment in the meet came in the 400-yard medley relay on the third day of the competition. The Braves’ relay team of Schwengle, Ketlyn Rodriguez Matos, Fatima Portilo and Mariel Mencia Martinez initially finished .01 seconds behind Emmanuel with a school-record time of 3 minutes, 38.89 seconds — but the Lions were disqualified from the event, not only giving the Braves the win but some breathing room in the team points standings.

“And we didn’t know when they announced it, the whole stadium started screaming, everyone started crying, because that gave us a little bit of points ahead to be more comfortable,” Rodriguez Matos said. “Now we don’t have much pressure.”

The Braves won two additional relays and eight individual titles, posting eight NCAA B-standard qualifying times, meaning they will be among those under consideration for selection to the national meet.

The Braves built up to Saturday’s result with a third-place finish in 2022, the program’s first season in Conference Carolinas, and a second-place result last year.

“This conference is getting stronger every year,” Roverato said. “It’s been a process; I try to recruit the best swimmers. Britta is one of these, we have a lot of international girls joining us here, we have 11 freshman here and more coming, so it’s a process.”

The team’s seniors, including Rodriguez Matos, Marcia Martinez and Natalia Sarmiento, will finish their careers as champions — and, Roverato says, their leadership is the reason for that success.

“Being able to lead the girls, the freshmen, the sophomore, the juniors, to the championship, and knowing that they grew as an athlete and person because of the work we put in throughout this season, it just makes me happy that I was able to guide those girls to become a better swimmer and student-athlete,” Rodriguez Matos said.

It was the Puerto Rican Rodriguez Matos in particular who showed exceptional leadership and perseverance through the season — a challenging one in and out of the pool.

Battling injuries, she posted a second-place finish and a school record in the 100-yard breaststroke, was part of all three victorious Braves relay teams and had three additional top-four finishes individually.

This season she has also competed while grieving the death of her father just before the season began.

“He said go, go on back and win,” Rodriguez Matos said. “Every second, that’s all I can think of is ‘go back and win.’ It was hard, but I had support from my coaches and teammates, they’ve always been there, and it was tough, but I was like, me not working hard is not going to make him proud, so I’m not going to let myself down for me or for him. The entire meet, I was like, I know Dad is here, I know he’s watching, so I’m going to make him proud.”

“She’s the mentally toughest person I’ve ever met in my life,” Schwengle said. “She’s amazing and I pull my strength from her, and she knows that. She knows that if she breaks we all break, but she’s amazing and she has the mental toughness of a lion.”

Schwengle won three individual events, posting NCAA B-standard times in each, setting the meet and school record in the 1650-yard freestyle at 17:20.29, with teammate Sofia Periera also posting an NCAA B-standard time in second and Portillo finishing third; Schwengle also won the 500-yard freestyle in 5:02.49 and the 200-yard freestyle in 1:52.96.

The sophomore came to UNCP from Aruba, where despite a very deep background in competitive swimming she says she was struggling to find her way.

“(Roverato) found me in a dark place; he found me in a place where I didn’t like swimming anymore, I wanted to quit, I wanted to give up. But he brought me here and he brought me to place where I can call my second home,” Schwengle said. “The seniors, they brought me back, they made me love the sport again and I’m forever grateful for them, and I get to do amazing things and I’m going to accomplish my dreams because of them.”

Italian freshman Benedetta Pepe Pugliese won two events for the Braves, posting meet records and NCAA B-standard times in each, finishing at 2:17.73 in the 200-yard breaststroke and 4:24.58 in the 400-yard individual medley, in which teammate Chiara Ambrosi was second. Pepe Pugliese became the second-straight Brave to be named Conference Carolinas Swimmer of the Year, after Schwengle last season.

Mencia Martinez, from the Dominican Republic, also took two individual titles with NCAA B-standard times in each, with a 51.87 mark in the 100-yard freestyle and a 23.64 time in the 50-yard freestyle.

Periera, a Brazilian freshman, won the 1000-yard freestyle with a meet-record time of 10:27.04 and Portilo taking second.

Rodriguez Matos, Schwengle, Rhyan Murphy and Mencia Martinez swam the victorious 200-yard medley relay for the Braves in a school-record time of 1:35.46.

Katie Raleigh, Rodriguez Matos, Rachel Carapella and Mencia Martinez set both meet and school records in the 200-yard medley relay in 1:45.06 to earn the win.

Nine different countries and six U.S. states are represented on the Braves roster — yet the team has come together with a chemistry and togetherness remarkable for the diversity of background from which it originates.

“It doesn’t matter, you can come from the other side of the world, but we’re one team and you’ve got to respect each other no matter what,” Rodriguez Matos said. “We always tell them, just do the work; even if you don’t like someone, that’s your teammate, it doesn’t matter who it is, that’s your teammate and you’ve got to be there for them.”

That is also a testament to the leadership of Roverato, who was named Conference Carolinas Coach of the Year for the second straight year, marking the fourth time in five seasons he was won a conference Coach of the Year award.

“He believes in us, and he sometimes sees something that we don’t,” Schwengle said. “We sometimes don’t see how far we can go, but sometimes he triggers us and we have to prove him wrong in some way, or prove him right. He just has an aura around him that makes us want to work harder, and we see how hard he works.”

Selections to NCAA national championships will be announced Wednesday, with the possibility of selection for each B-standard qualifying time. But whether any Braves are picked or not, the team is pleased with its efforts knowing it did all it could.

“It’s a selection, so there’s nothing we can do more,” Roverato said. “But it doesn’t matter, how many we bring, this is a great start for the next season. … We’ll celebrate today, we’re going to see what happens (Wednesday), we’ll go to nationals and we’re going to get prepared for next season.”