Not many people get the chance to train with their idol — especially when their idol is Michael Phelps.
However, Bel Air native Chase Kalisz did exactly that. From 2010 to 2012, Kalisz swam side by side with the most decorated Olympian ever as his teammate at North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
Now, Phelps is no longer in the sport. Kalisz, 19, is on the brink of his best opportunity yet to break out and make his own name on the international stage.
And one of his biggest supporters is the man who he long looked up to.
“Chase has a great shot to really be America’s next great 400 IM swimmer,” Phelps said.
This week, Kalisz will swim in the Phillips 66 National Championships & World Championships Trials in Indianapolis. He is seeded in the top three in the 400-meter individual medley, an event in which he holds the world’s sixth-best time this year (4 minutes, 11.85 seconds).
If he finishes in the top two in the final, which he is favored to do, he will advance to the FINA World Aquatic Championships in Barcelona, Spain, next month, a meet he has never qualified for.
It seems like a lot of pressure for someone who is following in the wake of greatness.
But he has learned from the best. He is ready for the moment.
“Michael’s always been my role model,” Kalisz said. “Getting to swim with him, getting to know him as a person and having him as a friend, and to hear him say that about me, it means a lot.”
Training partner and friend
Kalisz still remembers the moment he realized he had elite potential.
It was late 2010, and just after he finished a practice with his coach, Scott Armstrong, at Mount Washington’s Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center, NBAC CEO and head coach Bob Bowman pulled him aside.
Bowman asked Kalisz to join his exclusive training group — the one that included an Olympic champion in Phelps and a future one in Allison Schmitt.
It was an opportunity Kalisz he could have never said no to.
Though he had to work around his school schedule to accommodate practice and travel — he was still a student at Fallston at the time — being asked to swim with NBAC’s top tier was validation that he could be among the best.
“Bob’s helped lay the groundwork for all the great swimmers here,” he said. “And so he helped change my mindset to where I wanted to go farther than being just a college swimmer. Swimming with Michael definitely helped, too.”
Kalisz also wanted to beat Phelps in anything he could. When he started in Bowman’s training group, Phelps had just returned from a break from swimming.
It was the first time Kalisz, an unproven teenager, was ready to swim next to his idol, someone he watched on TV as he fought for eight gold medals in the 2008 Olympics.
So when he had the chance to race the rusty then-16-time Olympic medalist in a 400 IM training session, it was close for about 100 meters. Then Kalisz took off.
“Anything I could, I’d race him on,” Kalisz said. “I’m sure he was thinking, ‘What the heck is he doing?’ But he’s the best, so why not try to beat him?”
Phelps added: “I literally just watched him take off, and it was on backstroke, too. And I said: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I didn’t expect him to straight school me. Chase is something that’s very special. He’s a very talented kid.”
As the two practiced and traveled together from Baltimore to Colorado Springs, Colo., and to meets around the nation, they became friends as well.
They would joke around during breaks in the pool. Away from the water, they would see who could eat the most and would play “Call of Duty” at night.
“I can beat him all the time. He’s garbage in Xbox,” Kalisz said. “He likes to think he’s better than me; he likes to tell me I’m bad, but I’m way better than him.”
But Kalisz learned from Phelps as well.
He saw firsthand how Phelps focused intensely during training; how he feared nobody in the pool; how he swam his own race and didn’t allow for distractions.
In 2011, Kalisz lowered his personal best in the 400 IM from 4:26.97 to 4:18.43, a time he achieved at the USA National Championships in August.
By USA Olympic Team Trials in June 2012, his personal best was down to 4:16.86, just four-tenths of a second from the Olympic “A” standard.
There in Omaha, Neb., Kalisz qualified for the 400 IM and 200 IM finals.
Maybe it was the fact that he was distracted by the fireworks going off in the arena or the tens of thousands cheering fans, he said, but he finished just sixth in the 400 IM and fifth in the 200 IM, his second-best event.
His role model, however, breezed through the competition as he qualified for eight events at the London Olympics.
“[Being distracted] definitely never happened before,” Kalisz said. “But I think, now, I handle pressure pretty well. Learning from Michael, he’s taught me so many ways to cope with everything.”
Out of the shadow
As Phelps retired, Kalisz said, he felt he was finally ready to put what he learned into action.
He corrected form with his backstroke — it's the one stroke he said he's made the most improvements on —and he practiced in the pool four days a week in a pair of two-hour sessions. He also did dry workouts six days a week.
On Aug. 23, at the Junior Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, he cut more than three seconds off his personal best in the 400 IM to 4:12.59 en route to a meet-record victory.
He then enrolled at the University of Georgia this past school year, where he was able to train with Schmitt and coach Jack Bauerle in Athens.
“We’re the recipient of a very darn good kid here,” Bauerle said. “He’s very open to coaching, and honestly, he’s just a very good team member.”
As a freshman, he won the 200- and 400-yard IMs at the Southeastern Conference Championships. He also was a member of the Bulldogs’ 800-yard freestyle relay team.
One month later, he won the 400 IM NCAA title, scorching the field by 1.5 seconds.
“When we were practicing with Michael, Chris Brady and Kevin Webster [in Baltimore], he would always want to beat one of them,” Schmitt said. “Now, he’s one of those guys that everyone is trying to beat.”
Kalisz’s rise is nowhere close to complete, however.
Sure, he now has top 15 times in the world this year in both the 200 IM and 400 IM, but Bowman said there’s still much to work on.
Phelps stopped by a practice a few weekends ago, pointed out a flaw in Kalisz’s breaststroke and helped Bowman fix it.
“Oh, my god, he’s not even close to his potential,” Bowman said. “He’s got way long to go, and that’s a scary thing.”
There is no looking far ahead. Bowman won’t allow it.
In fact, Kalisz is just worried about his next race. His weakness is in the front half of the medley — butterfly and backstroke — meaning he typically has to come from behind just to finish top three.
“Nothing really fazes me anymore, but for me, it’s just staying patient,” Kalisz said. “I know everyone’s going to be out in front of me. I just need to swim my own race.”
It’s a lesson learned from one of the best.
But Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, knows what Kalisz is capable of achieving.
“It doesn’t matter who he stands up on the block next to, Chase is going to push you as much as he can,” Phelps said. “I think that’s something that’s pretty special that not many people can do.
“If Chase has the chance where he’ll be put in the environment with the best, he’ll rise to the occasion. I just hope I can help him reach his potential. He is, and will always be considered a younger brother to me.”
Meet Chase Kalisz
Hometown: Bel Air
High school: Fallston
2013 NCAA champion, 400-yard IM
2013 Southeastern Conference champion, 200y IM, 400y IM
2012 U.S. Olympic Trials finalist, 200-meter IM, 400-meter IM
2012 Junior Pan Pacific champion, 400m IM, 200m IM
Top times in 2013
400-meter IM: 4:11.85 (6th in world)
200-meter IM: 1:59.66 (15th in world)
Phillips 66 National Championships & World Championships Trials
IU Natatorium, Indianapolis
Tuesday through Saturday
Kalisz's scheduled swims
200m butterfly: Tuesday, 9:13 a.m. (heats)
200m breaststroke: Wednesday, 9:41 a.m. (heats)
400m IM: Thursday, 9:27 a.m. (heats)
200m IM: Saturday, 9:19 a.m (heats)
Note: Finals in each event at 6 p.m.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun