Chase Kalisz emerged from the 2016 Olympics as a newly minted silver medalist, proud but unsatisfied.
The Bel Air native had just produced the swim of his life in the 400-meter individual medley, a race he’s described as “my baby.” He also knew he could do better, and he was already thinking ahead to the next Olympic cycle that would lead him to Tokyo.
After a roller coaster five years marked by career-best performances and subsequent disappointments, Kalisz will get his chance. When the Tokyo Games finally commence in late July, he’ll swim the 400 IM, which he won last Sunday at U.S. Olympic Trials, and the 200 IM, in which he qualified second on Friday night. He will project as a medal contender in both races.
It’s the scenario the 27-year-old Kalisz envisioned. His path was anything but straight.
He followed up his silver-medal performance with a brilliant showing at the 2017 FINA World Aquatics Championships, winning both the 200 and 400 IM in career-best times. Those races seemed to cement him as the IM king, a perch long held by his former North Baltimore Aquatic Club training partner Michael Phelps.
But Kalisz experienced a shocking fall in 2019, when he failed to make the World Championship final in the 400 IM, swimming almost 10 seconds slower than his best time from two years earlier. He rallied to finish third in the 200 IM, but his Olympic goals no longer seemed certain.
As it turned out, Kalisz was dealing with a shoulder injury that he did not reveal until he had won the 400 IM at trials last weekend.
“It was really the first time I’ve ever been injured,” he said. “Mentally, for me, it was kind of devastating. … I kind of lost a little bit of myself there, and these past two years have kind of just been reclaiming all of that.”
He couldn’t do the long, hard training sets that had been his foundation since he grew up under the watch of his former coach Bob Bowman and his swimming big brother, Phelps.
“It’s difficult, because you can’t do the things that you would like to do sometimes so you have to do things that are a little bit more unusual,” Kalisz’s coach, Jack Bauerle, said of training with the shoulder injury. “But to Chase’s credit, he sort of worked through it and when you get a little bit older, you will get some bumps and bruises that you didn’t have before. We have to adjust a little bit. It’s not uncommon. Tough guys figure out a way to be tough when it counts.”
The coronavirus pandemic actually benefited Kalisz, giving him an extra year to recover and regain his best form for the delayed Tokyo Games.
His trials-winning 400 IM time of 4 minutes, 9.09 seconds was more than two seconds behind his silver medal time in 2016 and more than three seconds behind his personal best from 2017 World Championships. But it was in line with his trials-winning time from 2016, and he seemed confident he would take another step forward in Tokyo.
Kalisz’s breast stroke remains a formidable weapon, allowing him to pass swimmers who’ve gone out ahead of him in the first two legs of the IM.
Japan’s Daiya Seto, the 2016 bronze medalist in the 400 IM, and New Zealand’s Lewis Clareburt project as Kalisz’s top rivals, along with his University of Georgia training partner Jay Litherland, who qualified second at U.S. trials.
Win or lose, Kalisz said this will probably be his last Olympic go-round with the 400 IM. He’ll be 30 for the 2024 Games in Paris.
“It’s not an old man’s event, and I don’t want to call myself old, but this is the first time I visually noticed that I was the oldest person in the 400 IM,” he said after the Trials final. “I can’t tell you how many times I was the youngest person on our U.S. National travel team, the youngest person at Grand Prixes for so long, and I still feel young, feel really young inside, but sometimes my body doesn’t agree with that.”
The 200 IM field is wide-open in the absence of Phelps, who won the last four Olympic gold medals in the event. In the trials final Friday night, Kalisz could not catch the brilliant sprinter Michael Andrew, who built a huge lead over the first three legs of the race. Andrew is one of the few 200 IM contenders who can beat Kalisz on the breast-stroke leg, making him a difficult matchup if he holds his form.
Kalisz’s second-place time of 1 minute, 56.97 seconds was similar to his third-place time at 2019 World Championships but more than a second off his personal best from 2018.
“I just didn’t get moving and I didn’t really have any momentum on my back half, which I usually do,” he told Swimming World after the race. “I think that comes from my fly and my back. I was just kind of off today on those two strokes, and it made my back half suffer a little bit.”
In addition to Andrew, who has swum the two fastest times in the world this year, Kalisz’s top rivals in Tokyo could include Seto, Duncan Scott of Great Britain, Mitch Larkin of Australia, Wang Shun of China and Jeremy Desplanches of Switzerland.
Nitpicking of his final swim aside, Kalisz said he’s “thrilled” to be qualified for the Olympics in his signature events.
July 21-Aug. 8 (Opening Ceremony on July 23)
TV: NBC (Chs. 11, 4)