Alex and Gretchen Walsh Chasing the Ultimate Dream… Together

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Gretchen Walsh and Alex Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: The Walsh family

Alex and Gretchen Walsh (From June’s Swimming World Magazine)

Alex and Gretchen Walsh have worked their way up the pecking order of American swimming, and in 2021, the talented sisters from the Nashville Aquatic Club and two-time national champion Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tenn., will get their shot at their greatest goal: the Olympics.

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When Alex Walsh thinks back on her first Olympic Trials experience, she remembers the awkwardness of arriving in the ready room early before her first race and the nerves of marching into a massive arena for prelims. She was racing in the 100 back in Lane 2 with eminent competition in the next three lanes: 2012 Olympian and multi-time NCAA champion Rachel Bootsma, American record holder and defending Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin and eventual Olympic silver medalist Kathleen Baker.

Walsh, competing for Nashville Aquatic Club, was just 14 years old at the time, but she held her own. She finished sixth in the heat and advanced to the semifinals. A few minutes later, she exited the pool and walked into the mixed zone, where she spoke with a reporter.

“I had to stop the person and go throw up,” Walsh said. “Normally, I don’t throw up in prelims, because I don’t totally physically strain myself, but that was a combination of nerves and stuff. My coaches still make fun of me for that today.”

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Alex Walsh — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Walsh had to withdraw from her second event that morning, the 100 breast, but she returned that evening for the backstroke semifinal and finished an impressive 12th. Four days later, she would place even higher in the 200 back, finishing 10th.

At 14, Walsh wasn’t the youngest swimmer at the meet—or even the youngest in her family. Her 13-year-old sister, Gretchen, had qualified two weeks beforehand in one event, the 50 free.

“Nothing compares to that meet,” Gretchen said. “For me, I didn’t have any expectations, just because I had already gotten my goal just to be there. I swam the 50 free on the last day, and I think I got 98th or something like that. It wasn’t about the swimming at that point. It was just being there and experiencing it.”

Actually, Gretchen finished in a three-way tie for 125th, 6-tenths slower than her qualifying time from a few weeks earlier. But for both Alex and Gretchen, the experience was a formative one for their swimming careers. Four years later, both Walsh sisters are established junior-level stars, joined in a pursuit of senior-level elite status with a shared, yet very separate, Olympic dream.


A Mom’s Perspective

Eighteen months apart in age, Alex and Gretchen have grown up together, and their mother, Glynis, thinks the two complement each other. Alex is more inward and balanced, level-headed and thoughtful. Glynis said, “I definitely trust her thought process, especially for herself. She knows her own heart.” Gretchen, meanwhile, is more focused and loud, more likely to show emotions than her sister—and more likely to be on time.

“Alex is more of my sleeper than Gretchen,” Glynis said. “Every morning, Gretchen is the first one up. She eats her breakfast, gets her stuff ready to go to school, and then she’s waiting on Alex. Alex kind of rolls downstairs, eats quickly, and they go to an all-girls school, so her hair is a mess, and they just kind of walk out the door. Gretchen is the one who keeps her on schedule for school and probably for swim practice.”

In swimming, Gretchen was always the more goal-oriented of the two. When the girls were younger, Alex had success more quickly, winning junior nationals when she was 14 and breaking national age group records before that. Gretchen, meanwhile, swam largely in her sister’s shadow. That drove Gretchen to try to match her sister’s early achievements.

“Gretchen saw the attention that her sister got, and I think she really worked very hard and developed a very strong work ethic, and that has benefited her,” Glynis said. “When Gretchen started having success, I think Alex realized, to really be at the top level, the most elite, she really also had to work as hard as her sister, so that helped and benefited her.

“Gretchen was learning from Alex, and Alex was learning from Gretchen. I think if they didn’t have each other, I don’t think they would have been as successful as they have been. When one is having a hard time, they see what’s working for their sibling, and that helps them apply those skills. They’re so lucky to have that situation.”

Of course, it’s not always that simple, and Glynis admitted as much. Alex and Gretchen sometimes can become envious and frustrated if one is struggling while the other is swimming well. So the girls try to leave all that at swim practice. Glynis said, “We can’t really talk about any of that. It hits too close to home. It’s something that we don’t really want in our family dynamics.”

But even while they compete in different events, swimming has always been a shared experience for Alex and Gretchen. They drive together to swim practice and train together, and as talented swimmers, Alex and Gretchen have become the leaders in practice. Naturally, they often end up going head-to-head.

“We have our moments,” Alex said, before adding, “If we’re fighting, or not actually fighting but just kind of upset, it goes away after a while.” Gretchen concurred. “We’re really quick to get over stuff.”

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Gretchen Walsh — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

When Alex and Gretchen were considering their college choices, they each went through their own recruiting process, but they ended up settling on the same school: the University of Virginia. Each separately felt attracted to the team dynamic and culture that head coach Todd DeSorbo has built in a quickly rising Cavalier program. Alex will enter college in the fall of 2020, and Gretchen will follow one year later.

On being together in Charlottesville, Alex said, “I think it’s going to be fun,” to which Gretchen responded, “I don’t think we’ll get sick of each other as often.” In college, Alex and Gretchen won’t be together as often, and they won’t constantly compete against each other in practice, but they will still have each other for support—as sisters.

“By the time Gretchen gets there, they’re going to live on opposite sides of the campus, and they’ll swim on opposite sides of the pool because Gretchen will be in the sprint group and Alex will be in the middle distance group. Instead of being right next to each other and being compared, they’ll be more parallel and supportive,” Glynis said. “They’ll be there as teammates, as friends. They’ll be there for the good and the bad, but they won’t be right next to each other.”


Steady Improvement for Alex and Gretchen Walsh

Coming off her first Olympic Trials, Alex was recognized as one to watch in the backstrokes and the 200 IM, but in December, she pulled off a stunner when she vaulted herself to junior national champion in the 100 yard breaststroke, with a 58.80 that beat her own lifetime best by 2.5 seconds and broke the meet record belonging to Lilly King.

In long course, Alex would continue to excel in backstroke and especially in IM—in 2017, she qualified for her first-ever final at the U.S. National Championships and ended up finishing fourth in the 200 IM, and later took fourth in the event at the FINA World Junior Championships—but in short course yards, Alex ranks in the top 20 for two events: the 100 and 200 breast.

As for Gretchen, she was still relatively unknown entering the summer of 2018, but the 15-year-old quickly made an impression at nationals. In her first swim, she threw down a 54.38 in the 100 free, cutting more than a second off her best time to qualify for her first-ever national final. At that point, Gretchen had never swum on a national junior team, but suddenly, if she were to beat two swimmers in the final, she would earn a relay spot at the 2019 World Championships.

That evening, Gretchen ended up eighth, missing the World Championships, but making her presence very clear as the youngest in the final by five years. Gretchen also made the 50 free final at that meet, and she qualified to swim at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships in Fiji, where she would win gold in the 100 free and as a member of three relays, along with a silver in the 50 free. Alex also qualified for Fiji, where she won gold in the 200 IM and with Gretchen on the 400 free relay.

Shortly after the summer of 2018, Alex and Gretchen began working with a confidence coach, who has helped them work through the process of controlling their nerves and emotions at big meets. That helped the two stay focused on what was within their reach and not worrying about their competition. And perhaps not coincidentally, in 2019, both sisters elevated their swimming performance another step.

Based on her performances in 2018, Alex earned a trip to the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, her first ever with a senior U.S. national team. Alex swam three events in Lima and won three golds, including close wins over American compatriots in the 200 back (9-hundredths over Isabelle Stadden) and 200 IM (12-hundredths over Meghan Small) and a relay gold in the 800 free.

“When you hit your hand on the wall and see that you win gold, that’s just the best feeling ever,” Alex said. “To go to my first senior national meet and be able to win gold, it was just amazing. I think that summer, I just put in totally more effort into training and did a lot more in the pool. It just felt great to have all that pay off.”

On that trip, Alex met Madison Kennedy, a veteran sprinter 14 years her senior who has stuck around the sport long past her expected prime, solely because she still had a passion for swimming and racing. Alex said that Kennedy “reminded me that swimming isn’t all about dropping times and stuff. You do it because you love it.”

Alex recalled one night from Pan Ams when she and a group of teammates that included Tom Shields and three-time Olympian Nathan Adrian got stuck late in drug testing. The group did not return to the athlete’s village until 2 a.m., so they went to the cafeteria and ate cereal together. Another decorated veteran, Cody Miller, told Alex about the night of his 100 breast final at the Rio Olympics, when his bus to the pool showed up late.

“You can’t expect everything to be perfect because it’s not,” Alex said. “Something is going to be messed up. But he had the best race of his entire life. Just goes to show that if your routine gets changed a little bit, there’s only so much you can control. All the training that you put in, that’s what’s going to carry you. That was really helpful to hear because I got a little bit stressed out sometimes with the environment around me.”

But the biggest highlight of the year for Walsh would not come until December at the U.S. Open in Atlanta, when Walsh went head-to-head with Melanie Margalis in the 200 IM and led for 175 meters. Margalis got past Walsh at the end, but Walsh ended up dropping her lifetime best by more than two seconds to 2:09.01. That astonishing performance ranked her as the 17th-fastest performer in history, including the No. 6 American all-time and No. 7 in the world for 2019.

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Gretchen Walsh at the 2019 FINA World Junior Championships — Photo Courtesy: FINA / Budapest 2019

Not to be outdone, Gretchen also put together a career year in 2019. At U.S. nationals, she finished second in both the 50 and 100 free, and that qualified her for the FINA World Junior Championships in Budapest. There, Gretchen won six gold medals, in the 50 and 100 free and on four relays. She swam lifetime-best efforts of 24.71 in the 50 free and 53.74 in the 100 free, both elevating her into the global top 25 for 2019.

“It was amazing. We were at the Duna Arena, and the podium is above the pool, so you get to look out over the entire natatorium,” Gretchen said. “I was so pumped after all of my races. I felt so much love for my team, too, because you can hear them in the stands. Before you get on the block, they scream your name. It just meant a lot to be up there for them, but also for myself because it just showed that everything had paid off that I had done that season.”

Those dual sizzling seasons set up the Walsh sisters for a chance at something special, a chance they thought would come in 2020, but ended up getting pushed back one more year.


A Shared Goal: The Olympics

Alex assumed that no pair of sisters had ever before qualified together for a U.S. Olympic swim team, but one pair had. In 2004, the Kirk sisters both qualified, as Tara swam the 100 breaststroke and Dana swam the 200 butterfly. At those same Olympics, Klete and Kalyn Keller both swam freestyle events for the U.S. No pair of siblings have qualified together since.

On making an Olympic team together, Gretchen said, “It would mean a lot. That’s obviously both of our goals, and it would be very weird and also hard if only one of us made it.”

There’s the elephant in the room: the very real chance that only one Walsh sister earns a trip to Tokyo in 2021. Alex will have numerous chances to make the team, particularly in the 200 IM and potentially in the 200 back, but only two spots are available in deep and tightly bunched events. Currently, Alex owns the third-best time among active Americans in the 200 IM behind Baker and Margalis, but Madisyn Cox and Ella Eastin rank just behind her. Alex ranks fifth in the 200 back, behind Regan Smith, Baker, Lisa Bratton and Stadden.

Swimming World Magazine May June Issue - Sister Act -Gretchen and Alex Walsh Chasing the ultimate dream together

Alex and Gretchen Walsh — Photo Courtesy: The Walsh family

Gretchen, meanwhile, will be going for one of six relay spots available in the 100 free—and she admitted, “I feel very grateful that I am a sprint freestyler, just because relays give you a higher chance of making any sort of senior-level team.”

Going back to 2017, her 53.74 from the World Junior Championships ranks seventh among Americans, and her 24.71 ranks her fifth in the 50 free. The sisters have even considered the Olympic Trials schedule, which would see Alex swimming the 200 IM on Day 4, while Gretchen wouldn’t get her shot until the 100 free on Day 6.

Swimming together at big meets over the years, Alex and Gretchen have had plenty of experience going through the highs and lows of competition, and both admit that can get tricky to be empathetic of each other while focusing on their own goals.

“Especially if she does better than me or I do better than her, it’s just being able to be a little selfless and just be happy for the other one because you don’t want to bring them down with negativity or anything because what they did is amazing,” Gretchen said. “But I definitely struggle sometimes to be happy for her. I think it’s, like, a two-way street where you have to try to be happy for the other one, but the other one has to feel sympathy for you as well, knowing that you probably aren’t as happy with your performance.”

But Olympic Trials? That can ratchet up the pressure, and Alex admitted that the looming pressure had become frustrating as the meet drew closer. The one-year postponement, Alex said, helped relieve some of that tension.

“When it was supposed to be this summer and as we were moving closer to it, as it becomes more real, you do have to take a more realistic approach to it and be like, ‘Well, you don’t know,’” Alex said. “I can’t have a grudge against her if she made it. I feel like that wouldn’t be fair at all. Obviously, the best situation would be if we got to go together because that would just be really cool.”

In 2021, after a 12-month delay—and the first year that the sisters will ever spend apart—Alex and Gretchen will get their shot at their ultimate dream.

9 comments

    • Joanne Newton

      Kristi Cardoni-Weyant we in CT were fortunate enough years ago to have Alex and Gretchen live and train in CT. My daughter swam against them at many meets until they moved to TN. They were astounding to watch even as 12/unders!!

    • Joanne Newton

      Kristi Cardoni-Weyant we in CT were fortunate enough years ago to have Alex and Gretchen live and train in CT. My daughter swam against them at many meets until they moved to TN. They were astounding to watch even as 12/unders!!

    • James Ash

      Kyoko Tokunaga Sorensen swim moms rule!!!

  1. avatar
    Maureen Ducret

    So proud of these girls. Wishing the Walsh family all the best !