Chase Kalisz had nothing left to give from his hurting body.
He had done everything he’d trained for and shaved nearly three seconds off his personal best in the 400-meter individual medley. But as he approached the wall, he could not quite catch Japanese swimmer Kosuke Hagino.
“At the end of the day, that was all I could do,” said the 22-year-old from Bel Air, cradling the silver medal he’d just won in his first Olympics. “That was all I could hope for. I don’t think I could go any faster than I did.”
Japan’s Daiya Seto won the bronze.
Kalisz has spent a lifetime building to this moment, from his earliest days splashing behind his older sister, Courtney, at the Bel Air Swim Club through his many years trying to beat his idol and mentor, Michael Phelps, in heated practice races at North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
Out of the pool, he liked to play the light-hearted instigator, but in it, he burned to be as great as the swimmers around him, working under coach Bob Bowman.
On Saturday night, in the first swimming final of these Olympics, he made good on those ambitions.
I’m “unbelievably proud,” Bowman said in the moments after the race. “It was an awesome swim.”
In other action on the first day of Olympic swimming, Katie Ledecky made her Rio debut with a blistering anchor split as the U.S. women qualified second in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay, a race that also included Phelps and Kalisz’s training partner, Allison Schmitt.
Ledecky and Schmitt later picked up silver medals in the event as the U.S. pushed heavily favored Australia in the final.
Some observers had speculated Ledecky did not deserve a spot in the relay after her seventh-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle at Olympic Trials.
As usual, the 19-year old Bethesda resident responded by swimming faster than most thought possible. She was so good that U.S. women’s coach David Marsh also put her in the anchor spot for the relay final as well.
Ledecky is still developing as a sprinter. She said the last time she even swam a 4 x100 relay was “probably at some high school meet.”
But it’s folly to place any limits on her at this stage. She’ll likely chase her own world record in one of her signature events, the 400-meter freestyle, on Sunday. And she’ll swim in three more events after that.
“I think it bodes well for the rest of the week,” she said of her first race.
For Kalisz, however, Saturday was it, and he wasted no time seizing the moment.
After dreaming about the Games for the better part of his 22 years, he delivered the fastest 400 IM of his life the first time he jumped in an Olympic pool.
He was flabbergasted when he glanced up at his time after touching the wall just ahead of Seto in the afternoon preliminary. The board read 4 minutes, 8.12 seconds, more than a second ahead of his personal best.
“I didn’t expect to go anywhere near that,” he said. His goal had been 4 minutes, 11 seconds.
It was the kind of time he had known he would need to be competitive with the Japanese favorites, Seto and Hagino. And Kalisz wasn’t even particularly tired.
He felt unusually tense at Olympic Trials, six weeks earlier. Bowman noticed it from the moment he walked out for the 400 IM final there.
“I was operating on nerves, which is not a good thing for me,” Kalisz said Saturday afternoon. “That’s not how I am. I’m operating on excitement right now, just enjoying being here. I think that’s the difference.”
“Treat it like a normal swim meet,” Phelps had told him of the Olympics.
Phelps regards Kalisz like a little brother and for years, he tormented him in practice. He was so harsh at times that Bowman, no gentle voice in his own right, asked him to ease off.
But Kalisz has always maintained he’s grateful for the pressure from both his mentor and his coach.
“I know they're doing it because they love and care about me, and they genuinely want to see the best out of me,” he said. “Who doesn't want to be told what to do and get tips from the greatest swimmer of all time and from Bob, one of the greatest coaches of all time?”
Phelps’ affection for the kid who used to follow him around the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center is apparent. His eyes filled with tears and he thrust both fists in the air when he watched Kalisz clinch his spot in the Olympics.
Because he looked up to Phelps and because Bowman is such an advocate for practicing every stroke and building a deep fitness base, Kalisz seemed almost destined to swim the 400 IM.
Many swimmers speak of it as one of the sport’s ultimate torture tests. Phelps, who won gold in the 400 IM in 2004 and 2008, no longer swims the race because it would drain his 31-year-old body too severely.
Kalisz recalled many tedious mornings when Bowman would throw him in a distance lane to grind out laps while his training partners had fun practicing sprints.
“Without Bob, I probably wouldn't be doing the 400 IM because I probably wouldn't want to be doing it,” Kalisz said at trials. “But Bob is good at pushing you and getting the best out of you, and honestly, it's the best thing for me.”
He was a “little upset” not to live up to the golden legacies of Phelps and Ryan Lochte. ‘But look at this thing,” he said, nodding to the disc of silver in his hand. “How could I not be happy?”
Kalisz is the most accomplished member of one of the country’s most successful swimming families. Each of his three siblings have qualified for at least one Olympic Trials, and his sister, Courtney, was on track to become an Olympian herself until she was derailed by an ankle injury.
His parents, Mike and Cathy Kalisz, flew to Rio Friday morning, and they couldn’t quite believe that after 20 years of shuttling four kids between meets and practices, they were watching one in the Olympics.
“It’s just the coolest thing,” Mike Kalisz said. “There could be an international incident tonight, because we’re celebrating.”
They weren’t sure they could afford the trip initially, but Chase told them, “Mom and dad, I need you there.”
They were grateful when family, friends and co-workers pitched in to help cover the costs.
Mike is the longtime athletic director at Hereford High and Cathy has been an enduring leader of the parent volunteers at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Neither swam seriously, and they discovered the family gift almost by accident when they put a young Courtney in the pool to learn water safety.
Despite his family legacy, Chase’s path was not easy. When he was 8, his legs suddenly went weak hours after he’d run a road race with the family in Bel Air.
Mike had to carry him into the hospital. And doctors diagnosed him with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, leading to severe muscle weakness. They predicted a three- to six-month stay in intensive care, and Kalisz went into a medically induced coma, breathing on a ventilator for a week.
Fellow swim families nurtured the Kaliszes through the ordeal, and dreams of the pool motivated Chase to get out of the hospital far more quickly than predicted.
Now, he’s a silver medalist.