After Worlds Debut, Teenager Thomas Heilman Teeming With Potential For Olympic Season

Thomas Heilman of the United States of America competes in the 100m Butterfly Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 28th, 2023.
Thomas Heilman -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Editorial content for the 2023 World Aquatics Championships is sponsored by FINIS, a longtime partner of Swimming World and leading innovator of suits, goggles and equipment.


After Worlds Debut, Teenager Thomas Heilman Teeming With Potential For Olympic Season

It was a changing-of-the-guard-type moment as Thomas Heilman roared down the stretch of the 200 butterfly final at U.S. Nationals. His prelims swim, when Heilman swam a time of 1:55.11 to cut almost one-and-a-half seconds off his best time, reinforced what many in the swimming community viewed as inevitable, that the many-time age-group-record breaker would soon make his impact on the senior international level.

Lo and behold, that moment came more quickly than expected as Heilman nearly chased down Carson Foster that evening in the final, his time of 1:54.54 beating the 15-16 National Age Group record that Michael Phelps set on the way to a world title in 2001. He became the youngest man to earn a spot on a senior-level U.S. team in two decades.

Now, as the Olympic year beckons, Heilman has the look of a potential Olympic medalist in the race. Yes, that’s bold, but consider the improvement track and the company he’s now keeping. In one year, Heilman dropped his best time from 1:56.52 to 1:53.82, a 2.70-second margin that helped him finish tied for fourth in the World Championships final. The mark left him just three hundredths shy of the world junior record.

Leon Marchand ended up well clear of the field in 1:52.43, jumping to fourth all-time in the event, but it was a scramble to the wall after that, with Poland’s Krzysztof Chmielewski, Japan’s Tomoru Honda, Canada’s Ilya Kharun and Heilman all finishing within two tenths. Heilman’s closing split was third-fastest in the race behind fellow teenager Kharun and Marchand.

After Worlds, there’s no reason to expect Heilman’s time drops to come to a screeching halt. At age 16, male swimmers tend to continue dropping time, and Heilman’s training under coach Gary Taylor at Cavalier Aquatics has clicked. And if he can get into 1:53-low territory, that would reach a level that has earned a medal in every international 200 fly in history aside from the 2008 Olympics.

Assuming world-record holder Kristof Milak returns even close to his top form, he will be the strong favorite for Olympic gold, and it’s hard to see anyone else topping Marchand for silver (unless he opts out of the 200 fly). Behind that, no one has separated themselves, as evidenced by this year’s Worlds final, leaving an opportunity that Heilman could take advantage of.

Important to note that no American men besides Phelps has won an Olympic or World Championships medal in the 200 fly in 20 years, since Tom Malchow joined Phelps on the podium at the 2003 Worlds. As for that world junior record, Heilman will remain eligible to break that mark in 2024 and 2025. It would be no surprise if he can snag that international honor to put next to his many U.S. marks in due course.

Meanwhile, the second part of the Virginia teenager’s international debut was less successful. In the 100 fly, Heilman tied for 16th after prelims and came up short in a swim-off while trying to advance to the semifinals. But he had already dropped his 100 fly best time from 51.98 to 51.19 in one day at Nationals as he upstaged veteran Shaine Casas for a trip to Fukuoka. The 51-second barrier seems to be next.

While Heilman qualifying for Worlds in the 200 fly so soon seemed like a stretch, dropping the time in the shorter race necessary for a trip to Fukuoka was a longer shot. Expect a similarly-tough path in 2024 with world-record holder Caeleb Dressel targeting a return to his dominating ways and Dare Rose having established himself with a World Championships bronze this year. Still, we have learned our lesson about counting out Heilman.

And could he impact the U.S. Olympic Trials in other events? Don’t rule out the possibility. In addition to butterfly, Heilman also owns National Age Group records in freestyle and individual medley, and at the 2022 Junior Pan Pacific Championships, three of Heilman’s six medals came in freestyle or free relay events. He led off the 400 free relay in 49.14 and split 1:47.98 on the 800 free relay.

But then, even as Heilman broke out in the butterfly events this year, bringing his junior-level talents to contend with the big boys, his freestyle racing remained stagnant. For whatever reason, he could not find those same jumps at Nationals. Maybe that’s coming, just on a one-year delay?

Heilman’s best times are 49.06 in the 100 free and 1:49.13 in the 200 free, neither time anywhere close to what’s required to qualify for an American relay these days. So he is a longshot to qualify for an Olympic team outside of butterfly, but you never know.

Call it a hunch that Heilman finds his way into the mix in at least one of these freestyle events. Olympic Trials will follow a prelims-semifinals-finals format, so if Heilman can improve enough to get into the semis, particularly in the 200 free, maybe he can out-duel some experienced freestylers swimmers for a spot in the final and then a spot in the top-six. He has already proven racing ability in big moments.

Heilman will soon return to training with his first Olympic Trials and his potential for accomplishment at that meet in clearer sight than ever before. His presence on this year’s Worlds team was unexpected, but the moment was not too big for him. If Heilman can maintain his mental fortitude and his steady gains in the pool, the ultimate goal of an Olympic team and even Olympic success is within reach.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x