It’s a calm warm Friday morning in mid-September — 70 swimmers dive into the waters of Lone Star Lake for a 5k swim at the CSCAA Open Water Championship in Lawrence, Kansas.
For freshman swimmer Ilaria Murzilli, this wasn’t her first time swimming a 5k. But, where she once saw the ocean floor, this time around she only saw darkness.
From that came fear, but also spirit and determination from the first Italian swimmer in the history of Nebraska swimming and diving.
“I was very scared,” Murzilli said. “I did an Open Water back in Italy in the ocean. However, a lake is very different than the sea. But, when I was in the water, I felt very good and just swam. My teammates said it was fine to be scared because it was my first race of the season.”
Hailing from Rome, Murzilli previously attended Biagio Pascal Rome and swam club for Unicusano Aurelia Nuoto. She also has been a member of the Italian National Team since 2017 and was the No. 38 internationally-committed recruit in 2021 according to Swimcloud.com.
As mentioned, Murzilli is also the first Italian swimmer in the history of the Husker program. Head coach Pablo Morales, though he didn’t know the landmark at the time, sees it as another step in Nebraska’s progression in bringing international swimmers to Lincoln.
“It’s great,” Morales said. “It helps continue the trendline of getting international athletes and expanding our footprint. Italy has a history of producing great swimmers and we’re so lucky to have Ilaria [Murzilli] here. She liked what she saw from a video call standpoint and it’s been great having her.”
Murzilli is one of four international swimmers out of Nebraska’s seven-member 2021 recruiting class. The Italian swimmer also comes into Nebraska with much achieved. At the 2021 Italian National Championships, she finished 18th in the 400 freestyle in long course meters. In terms of events, Murzilli has raced freestyle swims from 50 short course meters to 800 short course meters. In the 50 freestyle, her best was 26.20 seconds.
For the 100 freestyle, her best time is 56.20 seconds and in the 200 freestyle, she clocked in at 2:01.43. As for the 400 freestyle, her top time was 4:11.72 and her 800 freestyle was 8:35.19.
“She’s had a pretty steep improvement curve,” Morales said. “She shows she’s versatile in distance, but she can also swim middle distance and short distance. She’s improved dearly in the last couple of years. What we’ve seen so far has been really impressive.”
The CSCAA Open Water Championship was the Huskers’, and Murzilli’s, first competition of the season. That, for any incoming freshman, would be a crazy start to their collegiate career. But since it wasn’t Murzilli’s first open water race, Morales believed she was ready for the deep end.
Murzilli ended up finishing second in the race and helped Nebraska claim the title.
“It was pretty interesting,” Morales said. “She’s getting used to the country, transitioning to being a freshman and living away from home. Next thing you know, we’re heading down to Lawrence, Kansas to swim a 5k in a lake. But, she handled it like a pro. She paced herself well, the moment wasn’t too big for her and she got up there with the leaders. She’s a racer, has confidence and it showed.”
Murzilli has also competed in the team’s only other meet so far this season. In the team’s win against South Dakota State, Murzilli swam in three events. In the 200 freestyle, she took third with a time of 1:54.21 and in the 100 backstroke, she finished fourth with a time of 1:01.65.
Her best event of the day was the 200 freestyle relay, where she, sophomore Lexi Kucera, sophomore Gabby Donahue and senior Madesyn Ronquillo took first. Murzilli had a split time of 24.36 seconds in the relay, beating her previous 50 freestyle best by almost two seconds.
The freshman’s connection with her team has helped her thus far in her freshman year, according to Murzili.
“When I arrived here, the team was very great,” Murzilli said. “They helped me learn English and adjust to college life. I’m very happy for that. During my training, I got a lot of support from them. In practice they would cheer me on and just support me. That really helps me in my training to have teammates like that.”
As for the rest of the season, Murzilli is excited to see the Division I competition. Along with that, she’s also eager to see how she can perform against the Big Ten Conference, while also striving to improve in all aspects of herself.
“I want to do my best,” Murzilli said. “I know that the Big Ten is tough, but I want to do well in it. I also want to continue getting better at English. It’s not good now, but I know it will get better.”
For Morales, he doesn’t just want Murzilli to focus on improvement. He also wants her to have a solid transition into college life. As he puts it, freshmen athletes now have to make their own choices, adapt to things and keep their training in mind. They need to be open to unexpected changes, learn from it, and continue giving the effort they’ve had.
Fortunately for Murzilli, not only has she adjusted, proven by her performance at the Open Water, but she also has her teammates supporting her throughout.
“I love the group,” Murzilli said. “They are very forgiving and they help me a lot. I know it’s difficult for them to understand me, and I have trouble understanding them. But they help me and that’s what I love about them.”