Chase Kalisz let his body collapse back into the pool as his new reality set in on a Sunday morning in Tokyo; he’d finally won an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley, an event he’d spent much of his life working to master.
The Bel Air native was exhausted, but his swimming career was at the summit he had imagined since he was a teenager, tagging along behind Michael Phelps at the Meadowbrook Aquatic Center in North Baltimore.
Kalisz won a silver medal in the 400 IM five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, finishing just seven-tenths of a second behind Japan’s Kosuke Hagino.
He did himself one better in Tokyo, taking command of the race on the breaststroke leg as he usually does. His winning time of 4 minutes, 9.42 seconds was nowhere near his best, but he won easily, with his former University of Georgia teammate Jay Litherland finishing second.
“This is the last thing I really wanted to accomplish in my swimming career,” he said as he gulped for air during his postrace interview on NBC.
Kalisz did it with his former North Baltimore Aquatic Club training partner, Phelps, watching from the NBC broadcast booth. “He couldn’t have swum it better,” Phelps said.
With his gold-medal swim, Kalisz officially climbed all the way back from a shoulder injury that hampered his training and shredded his confidence in the run-up to the Tokyo Games. He was so out of sorts in 2019 that he did not qualify for the 400 IM final at FINA World Championships.
It was a startlingly flat performance in an event Kalisz had spent much of his life studying. As a teenager, he spent every day at Meadowbrook, building his endurance and his second-nature grasp of race tactics — save your legs on the butterfly, build your tempo on the backstroke — under the discerning eye of coach Bob Bowman. On many of those days, he swam beside Phelps, the greatest IM racer in history. Kalisz accepted the pain necessary to swim a great 400 IM. He welcomed it.
If he lost that edge two years ago as his body betrayed him, he was confident he had it back in the weeks before the Tokyo Games. “I will kill myself in that race,” he vowed.
Kalisz started the final in lane No. 3 after finishing third in qualifying on Saturday morning (Saturday evening, Tokyo time). That preliminary session featured the greatest shock of the Olympics so far when Japan’s Daiya Seto, the reigning world champion and favorite in the 400 IM, failed to qualify for the final. Seto has been a friendly rival to Kalisz since they were teenagers, and his abrupt exit left the American as the most accomplished swimmer in the field.
Kalisz had to know that if he could come close to his silver medal time from 2016 or his personal best from 2017 FINA World Championships, he would probably win the final. Only Phelps and Ryan Lochte had ever swum the 400 IM faster than him. The 27-year-old Kalisz had also strongly hinted that after this 400 IM final, he would never swim the grueling event again. So he was set up to leave everything he had in the pool Saturday night (Sunday morning, Tokyo time).
He did that, going out faster on the first two legs of the race than he had in qualifying and building a lead of more than two seconds on the breast stroke leg. No one seriously challenged him on the closing freestyle leg.
Kalisz will have a chance to add another medal Thursday in the 200-meter IM, which he did not swim at the 2016 Olympics.