Alex Walsh Raises the Bar Again, Becomes World Title Favorite in 200 IM

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Alex Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Alex Walsh Raises the Bar Again, Becomes World Title Favorite in 200 IM

In the 2021 Olympic Trials final of the 200 IM, Alex Walsh used brilliant backstroke and breaststroke splits to surge into the lead, and that put her 50 away from qualifying for her first Olympic team. Then she faded hard, and the race came down to the wire, but Walsh touched first, two hundredths ahead of University of Virginia teammate Kate Douglass and another two hundredths ahead of crestfallen veteran Madisyn Cox.

Seven weeks later, Walsh again turned for freestyle with the lead in the Olympic final, and she fought to hang on every stroke as Yui Ohashi, already the gold medalist in the 400 IM, clawed back. Ohashi did pull ahead at the finish, but the race made Walsh an Olympic silver medalist.

Walsh took that momentum and ran with it. She returned to college swimming, where she had opened her Cavaliers career as NCAA champion in the 200-yard IM in 2021, and at the 2022 national championships, she repeated as national titlist in her signature event while posting a stunning mark of 1:50.08, wiping eight tenths off Ella Eastin’s American record. Walsh was 1.8 seconds faster than her own winning time from the year before.

But she had not finished above fifth in any other event at NCAAs as a freshman, her sophomore campaign saw her add titles in two events in which she rarely competed over previous seasons, the 400 IM and 200 butterfly.

Walsh was somewhat overshadowed at NCAAs by Douglass, who also won three individual crowns while posting American records in all three events, but it was clear that she had progressed massively. The 19-year-old breakout performer from the year before had become a 20-year-old bona fide star, riding off of and building upon the confidence amassed in 2021.

She showed off more evidence of that fact Saturday night in Greensboro, N.C., during the final session of the U.S. International Team Trials. Walsh had only entered two events over the first four days of the meet, but she earned a spot at World Championships in the 800 freestyle relay after finishing sixth in the 200 free, her first serious foray into that event in long course. Walsh also had placed fifth in the 100 breast behind Lilly King, Annie Lazor, Kaitlyn Dobler and Lydia Jacoby, all single-stroke specialists.

In the 200 IM on the final night, Walsh was the clear favorite in a somewhat depleted field. If she could simply win, maybe finish in the 2:09-low range or even 2:09-mid, she would have taken care of business, set for the World Championships as a medal favorite.

Walsh didn’t need to make another huge jump, post another “wow” swim, but she did. A dominating performance saw Walsh out-split the field on every stroke except fly, where she was just behind Beata Nelson. Unlike the finals at her previous major finals, the Olympic Trials and the Olympics, she had no one to hold off on the freestyle leg, but she showed no signs of fatigue. Instead, Walsh touched in 2:07.84, breaking Kathleen Baker’s impressive U.S. Open record of 2:08.32.

The time was Walsh’s personal best by eight tenths. It made her the sixth-fastest performer in history and the second-fastest American, behind only Ariana Kukors’ suit-aided 2:06.15 from the 2009 World Championships. It was the fastest time in the world by more than two seconds and faster than any swimmer had recorded since 2019. The time was the fastest by any swimmer not named Katinka Hosszu since 2017.

It would have won the Olympic gold medal — comfortably, by seven tenths of a second.

“I didn’t know I had a 2:07 in me at this meet,” Walsh said. “Really couldn’t have been happier with how I swam it, and I think I’m definitely becoming more confident in myself in that race and learning how to close it well because last summer I would really fade in the last 15 meters. I’m really happy with how my endurance is looking.”

Walsh believes that training for and racing the 400-yard IM during the college season helped provided a huge lift for the 200 IM. “I just see it as a lot more of a shorter race and a more fun race,” she said.

Anxiety about whether she will perform well in big moments? She feels much less after successful taper meets in three successive months, beginning with the ACC Championships in February and continuing through NCAAs and then Trials.

“I think we figured it out,” Walsh said. “Every single time I taper, I get nervous that it’s not going to work, and then it works. I’m really grateful that (Virginia coach) Todd (DeSorbo) kind of experimented with what’s going to work, and I’m really happy that we found something. I think we realized that I needed more taper than what we had originally thought. It’s working for me, so I’m going to keep doing that.”

Yes, it’s working. Last week’s Trials featured brilliant swims all across the board on the women’s side, including Katie Ledecky’s 8:09 in the 800 free, Phoebe Bacon and Rhyan White swimming 2:05-lows in the 200 backstroke, Regan Smith dialing up a 57.76 in the 100 back and basically anything that teenagers Torri Huske and Claire Curzan did, but Walsh’s final-night effort topped them all as the women’s performance of the week. It was the latest notch in Walsh’s rise toward preeminence.

At every opportunity over the last year, Walsh has risen to any challenge and outperformed any reasonable expectation. That culminated in a performance that will send her to Budapest as the big favorite to win a world title in the 200 IM.

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Swimfan
6 months ago

Also in other news ledecky dropped the 200 free from her words schedule