Bel Air's Kalisz siblings turn Olympic swimming trials into family business

Bel Air native Chase Kalisz will swim at the Olympic trials with two of his siblings, Connor and Cassidy. His older sister, Courtney, competed at the trials in 2004 and 2008 but has retired from the sport due to an injury. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)

It was a fluke really, the young mother browsing at a flea market and picking up a book that promised to teach her 10-week-old daughter water safety in a week.

Cathy and Mike Kalisz certainly didn't harbor any grand designs. They weren't even casual swimmers.


But there was a certain alchemy when they put their eldest daughter, Courtney, in the water. By the time she was a year old, they couldn't pass a creek or a fountain at the mall without her wanting to jump in. By the time she hit grade school, she was challenging state records.

And just like that, a Harford County family had embarked on a quarter-century odyssey that will crescendo this week when three Kalisz siblings compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Neb.


"It will be cool to have all of us swimming together," says Connor, a rising junior at Florida State. "It's been awhile, and this will probably be the last time."

It's unusual but not unprecedented to have such a family confluence at trials. For example, the DeLoof sisters, a trio from Michigan, will also compete in Omaha.

The Kalisz kids still joke that Mike, the longtime athletic director at Hereford High School, does not understand their sport. "No child of mine will be on the swim team," they recall him saying. "They'll play lacrosse."


He rolls his eyes at this. But it's true that as swim parents go, the Kaliszes have always been hands off, leaving the particulars to coaches at the Bel Air Swim Club and then the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

"It's just amazing really," says Chase's coach, Bob Bowman. "They've been involved in the club for what, 20 years? Cathy has been kind of the stalwart of our volunteer group and has been one of our best supporters. Obviously, the kids can all swim and have all come through the system. They're very much like the Phelpses — an example of how you can start young and go through the whole spectrum of achievement, from being very good locally to being pretty good nationally to being the best."

The kids all participated in other sports, including soccer, cross country and yes, lacrosse.

But the Kaliszes are a swim family through and through. They've driven countless thousands of miles to practices and meets and strained their bank account paying for flights, membership fees and $400 suits (Mike and Cathy estimate the expense approached $15,000 some years).

Their immersion in this strange world was never more evident than when Chase was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome at age 8.

He wandered into his parents' bedroom one evening, complaining of extreme soreness in his legs. He had just run in a local road race, so the family pediatrician thought nothing of his symptoms. But the next night, he dragged himself into his parents' room on his hands and knees.

Mike had to carry Chase into the hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with Guillain-Barre, a disorder in which the body's immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system, leading to severe muscle weakness. Doctors at Sinai Hospital predicted a three- to six-month stay in intensive care. Chase went into a medically induced coma, breathing on a ventilator, for a week.

Mike and Cathy still tear up as they remember the way Courtney's coach, Paul Yetter, moved in to watch the other kids for several days, the overstuffed care package sent by the Phelps family, the pre-made dinners deposited on their stoop each night by another set of swim parents.

As Chase sped through his rehabilitation at an improbable rate, he often urged himself on by saying, "I just want to go back to the pool."

Swimming, a sport the Kaliszes had stumbled into, nursed the family through its darkest hours.

Chase says he doesn't think much about his illness anymore. When he doesn't kick vigorously enough on his strokes, Phelps and Bowman sometimes tease that it's because he was paralyzed for a stretch.

But it's obvious how deeply the experience affected his parents.

Sibling rivalry

There is a clear line of demarcation between the elder Kalisz siblings and the younger pair.

Courtney and Chase needed to be great swimmers in some essential way. "It was like they both thought they were only children," their mother says. "Like they always needed to be the most important person in the world."

Connor and Cassidy have sacrificed hundreds of early mornings and weekends to the swimming grind, but both care just as much about other aspects of their lives. Connor saw the sport as a means to earn a college scholarship and has no plans to continue past graduation. Cassidy is on a similar track.

Courtney, now 26, was a true prodigy, qualifying for three events at Olympic trials when she had just completed the eighth grade. Even then, she approached each meet with the seriousness of an aspiring Olympian.

"It was like my first love," she says of swimming.

Michael Phelps finished second to Baltimore training partner Chase Kalisz in the 200-meter butterfly Friday night at the Arena Pro Swim Series at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Chase brought a more comic personality — "I was the instigator," he says — but he badly wanted to imitate and eventually beat his big sister. "He would really look to me for approval," Courtney remembers.

Perhaps because he aspired to catch his sister and Phelps — who also treated him like a kid brother — Chase outworked everyone else in the family.

He and Courtney disagree on one point. She says she was still faster when she had to give up the sport in 2009. "She can believe that if it helps her sleep at night," Chase scoffs.

When he shattered the American record in the 400-yard IM two years ago, one of the first things he said to his parents was, "Courtney never held an American record."

The eldest Kalisz says she's now content to sit in the stands as her siblings' loudest fan. "It's amazing that I get to watch all three of my siblings," she says. "Who gets to do that?"

But 2012 trials, where Chase swam, were agony for her. The loss of her own Olympic dream was too fresh.

"I left early," she says, her voice breaking.

After winning silver in the 200 butterfly at the 2007 Pan Am Games, she was pushing hard to improve in early 2008 when she felt pain in her ankle during three-a-day workouts. Trying to be tough, she pounded through a 30-minute run, only to collapse the next morning when she got out of bed. She would swim at Olympic trials that summer and go off to USC on scholarship, but her ankle was never the same.

Though Chase has eclipsed Courtney as the most accomplished swimmer in the family, his performance plateaued for a long stretch during his high school years. He and Bowman agree that he simply needed to grow into his body. He added 15 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot-4 frame going into his freshman year at Georgia, and with his newfound strength came the world-class performances he had long coveted.

For 20-year-old Chase Kalisz of Bel Air, the 400-meter individual medley is "my baby."

He won a silver medal in the 400 IM at World Championships in 2013 and NCAA championships in 2013 and 2014. After a down season in 2014-2015, he took the last year off from school to train with Phelps and Bowman in Arizona and enters trials with the best 400 IM time of any American in 2016.

"He's just really grown up," Bowman says.


'I did the work'


By necessity, the younger siblings got dragged along on Courtney and Chase's daily pilgrimages — 27 miles each way — from Bel Air to Mount Washington. They had to kill many a three-hour stretch in the parking lot at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center, waiting for practices to end. It was not a reality they always appreciated.

Connor, a shy kid by nature, stopped swimming entirely for a few years, even though he had perhaps the prettiest strokes of anyone in the family.

"I was very over it," he says.

When he talks about the last several years, he sounds just as excited about "Embrace the Beat," a thriving electronic music website he created, as he does about his improvement in the pool.

"I'm just going to go there and do what I can," he says matter of factly when asked about trials. "I don't really have high expectations."

The Kaliszes took an even more reserved approach with Cassidy, keeping her away from high-level competition until she was 9.

"I didn't know that I wanted to be a swimmer," she says. "It makes it hard to live a normal life."

The rising senior at Fallston High School qualified for a trials spot in the 200-meter backstroke last summer. But like Connor, she prides herself on being well-rounded.

"There was no stopping Courtney or Chase," Mike says. "Connor and Cassidy, they like the experience, but they have other things in their lives."

Entering the 400-meter individual medley final Thursday night at the Phillips 66 National Championships and World Championships Trials in Indianapolis, Bel Air native Chase Kalisz (Fallston) had the opportunity he had been waiting for his entire career.

Neither Connor nor Cassidy is likely to come close to earning an Olympic spot in Omaha. They're just happy to compete. But this year — the fourth trials in a row at which a Kalisz will swim — is different for the family because Chase is one of the favorites in the 400 IM.

"We typically don't get nervous," Mike says.

"But we are this time," Cathy interjects.

Most top Americans say the tension at trials exceeds that at the Olympics. The competition is deeper in many events, and there are only two berths for the 2016 Games available in each race. The Kaliszes won't have to wait long — the 400 IM final is scheduled for Sunday evening.

Chase, who's entered in three other events at trials, says he'd be a fool to assume he's bound for Rio de Janeiro. But he didn't miss a single one of Bowman's workouts over the last year, and that gives him peace of mind.

"I know I did everything possible," he says. "That's enough. That's what I think about, knowing that I did the work."