Bel Air swimmer Chase Kalisz aiming for Olympic gold after accumulating years of battle scars: ‘My story’s not really finished’

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Sometime in the last five years, Chase Kalisz became one of the old guys in the room.

Not old on a human scale, of course. At 27, the Bel Air native is still plenty fit enough to contend for a gold medal in one of his sport’s most grueling all-around tests, the 400-meter individual medley.


But in the years since he won silver in the 400 IM at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Kalisz stopped being the fresh face on Team USA trips. He reached new personal bests, but he also took his lumps, especially when he tried to swim through a significant shoulder injury in 2019.

He let out a self-deprecating laugh recently as he described how much longer his body remains sore after a grueling swim. When he lines up for his second event in the Tokyo Olympics, the 200-meter IM, he’ll literally fight time in the form of 22-year-old American teammate Michael Andrew, who fires off the block like an out-of-control cruise missile.


“For me, my story’s not really finished,” Kalisz said two weeks ago from Team USA’s final training site in Hawaii. “I still have things I want to accomplish. There’s many obstacles I had to overcome this year, some publicized, some not. So I’m kind of just taking it a step at a time. Right now in my career, what I take pride in is doing everything correctly, taking pride in my training and doing everything recovery-wise. … I’m a little older than I was the last time, so those things are a little more important for me right now.”

Kalisz arrived in Tokyo with battle scars he did not carry in 2016 but also with the knowledge, born of wisdom, that he’s rediscovered himself as a swimmer. Does that mean he’ll be fast enough to pull upsets in the events once dominated by his former North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate, Michael Phelps?

“I really do think he can do it,” said Rowdy Gaines, the NBC analyst and former Olympic gold medalist. “I think he knows that. He can say, ‘I’ve done this before, and it wasn’t that long ago that I did it.’”

Jack Bauerle, who succeeded Bob Bowman as Kalisz’s primary coach after the last Olympics, sees a swimmer peaking at the right time. He compared his pupil to a great thoroughbred sensing the finish line after a difficult trip.

“It’s hard to lay the rubber down all the time,” Bauerle said. “Any great athlete has a year where it’s not up to their normal standards. Michael [Phelps] had it. They have a stumbling block somehow, and really, how you react to that is who you are.”

Kalisz will start his Olympics by attempting to play spoiler against Japanese star Daiya Seto in the 400 IM, with the final scheduled for Saturday night (Sunday morning Tokyo time). It’s the event Kalisz has long called his baby but also the one that let him know how diminished he was by the shoulder injury two years ago.

A good 400 IM is supposed to “hurt like no other event,” Kalisz likes to say, but in 2019, he could hardly lift his arms out of the water during training. The pain from his first substantial injury not only sapped his fitness base, it robbed him of his confidence. At the FINA World Championships that year, the biggest meet he would swim before these Olympics, he did not even qualify for the final in the 400 IM.

Chase Kalisz, a Bel Air native shown competing in the 200-meter butterfly final at the TYR Pro Swim Series meet April 10 in Mission Viejo, California, is still plenty fit enough to contend for a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in one of his sport’s most grueling all-around tests, the 400-meter individual medley.

“We had to work around it, tiptoe around it,” Bauerle said of Kalisz’s shoulder pain. “Otherwise, he would have been done. When they get a little older — Michael [Phelps] was in the same boat — their aches and pains are different. They’ve been through some wars, really. They might be just as good, but they’re not going to feel the same.”


Gaines and Kalisz share a unique bond because they both lived through Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes the body’s immune system to wage war on the nervous system. (Kalisz spent a week in a medically-induced coma when he was 8 years old.) So they talked candidly when Kalisz’s shoulder was throbbing.

“It can really bring you down mentally — forget physically,” Gaines said. “He’s always been a confident swimmer, but there were a couple years there, 2019 and early 2020, where I didn’t see that confidence from him.”

In another nod to his lengthening years, Kalisz has hinted strongly that the 400 IM in Tokyo will be the last of his career, win or lose. Gaines said this could work in Kalisz’s favor as he battles Seto and former University of Georgia teammate Jay Litherland.

“He wants to go out in style,” the NBC commentator said. “He’s said, ‘Listen, I’m going to leave it all in the pool.’ And I haven’t heard him talk like that since 2017.”

Back then, when Kalisz won a world championship in the 400 IM with a personal-best time of 4 minutes, 5.90 seconds, Gaines thought he might surpass Phelps’ world record in the event. He hasn’t come close to that, but he knows that if he simply gets back to his best time, he’ll have an excellent chance to win gold in Tokyo.

Seto, his friendly rival since their days in junior competitions, has never swum the 400 IM faster than 4:06.09.


You can hear the intensity rise in Kalisz’s voice as he describes his long quest to master this test of fitness and versatility — the mile swims Bowman made him take on as a teenager, their tactical discussions about maintaining tempo on the backstroke and saving his legs on the butterfly leg.

“I will give 100% effort; I will kill myself in that race,” Kalisz said. “You have to embrace the pain that the 400 IM brings. … I don’t know much longer I have with these left. I could have two 400 IMs left in my career — I don’t want to say that for sure, I don’t want to commit to anything for sure. I could go longer. But there’s not too many left of those for me, so I’m going to make every single one of them hurt as much as I can, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Chase Kalisz celebrates during the medal ceremony after winning the men's 400-meter individual medley at the U.S. Olympic trials June 13 in Omaha, Nebraska. Kalisz won a silver medal in the event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The 200 IM, which Kalisz did not swim at the 2016 Games but which he won at 2017 FINA World Championships, will present different tactical challenges. Seto will be there again, but Andrew stamped himself as an unexpected favorite in the event with a pair of eye-popping swims at U.S. Olympic Trials. He goes out staggeringly fast on the butterfly and backstroke legs, and he’s one of the only IM competitors who can match or beat Kalisz on the breast stroke leg.

“Chase is gonna have to get out a little faster,” Bauerle said. “Michael [Andrew] has changed the whole event, because he went out in a time that’s unheard of. The thing is, he really has four great strokes. What Chase has is a staying power and he has a breast stroke that’s great but even greater within an IM. That’s a very unusual gift.”

Kalisz will have to play the pursuer, but again, he knows his career-best time of 1:55.40 (swum in 2018), would likely make him competitive against Andrew, whose best time is 1:55.26.

The 200 IM final, which could be one of the most compelling of the Olympics, is scheduled for Thursday night (next Friday morning, Tokyo time). The winner will succeed Phelps, who owned the event from 2004 through 2016 and not coincidentally, served as a swimming big brother for Kalisz.


These Olympics have been difficult for everyone, with a one-year delay because of the global COVID-19 pandemic and a roiling debate in Tokyo about the appropriateness of holding the Games now.

For Kalisz, the rugged journey has been more personal, and he’s determined to make the best of it.

“I remember being the wide-eyed kid, running around with boundless energy,” he said, recalling his first World Championships at age 18. “I see some of these younger guys now, just their pure excitement. Now, I go to practice and try to recover, mentally reset for my next workout. The extracurricular activities are kind of toned down. It’s really cool for me to see it come full-circle. I’m definitely enjoying this trip from a different perspective.”


Through Aug. 8

TV: NBC, NBC Sports Network, CNBC, NBC Olympics