Cathy Kalisz was not in Tokyo, but she might as well have been as she watched her son, Chase, turn for the last 50 meters in his quest for Olympic gold. Her heart did not leave her throat until his hand touched the wall at the end of the 400-meter individual medley.
As she watched him sink back into the pool, the realization of what he’d done washing across his features, she knew he had left every inch of his being in that water. This was the way her four children, raised in Bel Air, learned to race as members of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club.
“He did it the way he’s always been trained to do it,” she said Sunday afternoon, still coming down 18 hours after the Olympic final.
Cathy watched her son pull away to win gold with a room full of Olympic family members who’d gathered at Universal Resort in Orlando because they could not travel to Tokyo under COVID-19 restrictions. Kalisz’s father, Mike, hosted a 60-person watch party back in Maryland.
Kalisz’s gold medal was a grand culmination not just for him but for an entire swimming family. His three siblings, Courtney, Connor and Cassidy, were also North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmers fast enough to compete at U.S. Olympic trials. Cathy was a stalwart among the club’s volunteer parents and Mike is Hereford High School’s athletic director. They spent as much as $15,000 some years just to cover travel and equipment expenses for their aquatic brood.
On Sunday night after the race, Mike and other family members sat together for hours, swapping stories and memories of a mission that began with the eldest sibling, Courtney, who nurtured her own Olympic ambitions before an ankle injury cut her career short. “We talked about over 25 years of swimming for the Kalisz family,” Mike said. “So many wonderful things have happened as a result of it.”
“We never really ever envisioned any of them were going to be an Olympian,” Cathy said from Florida. “It’s such a small percentage of people in the world. So it’s a feeling of being so joyous that your child has achieved his dream.”
Back in Tokyo, Chase Kalisz reacted with equal parts exultation and exhaustion in the moments after he won the 400 IM, an event he’d spent much of his life working to master.
He was physically spent, 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’d beaten himself up for that result, even though his parents and coaches were proud.
“I know he has used that as motivation, to push himself to train even harder,” Mike said.
Kalisz 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 and close friend Jay Litherland finishing second. Kalisz’s victory was the first gold medal for Team USA in the Olympics.
“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.
“Michael’s like an older brother to me. He’s my greatest role model in this world. It means the world to me that Michael was there for that,” Kalisz said in an interview with NBC that aired Sunday night.
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 Kalisz on the closing freestyle leg, and Litherland finished 86 hundredths of a second behind him.
“I honestly didn’t know who was coming at me on that last 100. We train together every single day, so I really couldn’t think of a better situation than we had,” Kalisz said in a his interview with NBC.
When he was done, he seemed relieved as much as joyful.
At his postrace news conference, Kalisz described feeling that he’d let USA Swimming down in 2016 when he did not win the 400 IM as Phelps and Ryan Lochte had before him. No matter that the Rio swim was the best of his life at that point.
“This was my redemption story,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t an easy path; it was tough last year with the Olympics kind of getting pulled out from under us and really having so much uncertainty of if it was even going to happen — it was five years of preparation for this one moment. It’s not like I was getting any younger. I was one of the older ones there.”
Kalisz will have a chance to add another medal Thursday in the 200-meter IM, which he did not swim at the 2016 Olympics.
Cathy, who still had not spoken to her son on Sunday afternoon as she allowed him to rest, figures the self-imposed pressure will be off for that race.
“Anything else,” she said, “is gravy.”