Gretchen Walsh Creating Numerous Opportunities for World Championships Breakthrough

Gretchen Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Gretchen Walsh Creating Numerous Chances for World Championships Breakthrough

In two fantastic seasons competing on the collegiate level for the University of Virginia, Gretchen Walsh has captured three individual NCAA titles along with three runnerup finishes and eight relay titles. She is the fastest swimmer ever in the 100-yard backstroke and second-quickest ever in the 50-yard freestyle and 100-yard freestyle. In long course, that final step of getting onto the top-level international team for the United States has eluded her so far — but recent results suggest she is on the verge of taking that step.

In 2022, Walsh missed out on Worlds by a mere one hundredth in the 50-meter free, but she had very disappointing results in the 100-meter events at the U.S. International Team Trials, ending up 22nd in the 100 free prelims and 15th in the 100 back prelims. Walsh and Virginia head coach Todd DeSorbo knew that she was capable of more, and they realized she had not been attacking the first part of her 100-meter races with the proper intensity. The 100 free short course was so different than long course that when she returned to the 50-meter pool, Walsh was “reverting back to this weird instinct to not swim it correctly.”

The solution, DeSorbo decided, was for Walsh to race the 100-meter swims in a practice suit to relieve the pressure and expectations she felt in the two-lap races. The strategy worked, and by U.S. Nationals in late July, Walsh swam a time of 53.86 in the 100 free, not quite her best time but her fastest in three years, and she got under 1:00 in the 100 back.

Thirteen months after the Greensboro debacle, Walsh is set up to get onto this year’s Worlds team when USA Swimming selects its squad based on the results of U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. The 20-year-old originally from Nashville has not raced long course extensively since the NCAA Championships, but her results this weekend at the NCAP Elite Qualifier were popping.

She cut seven tenths from her best time in the 100 butterfly, dropping down to a 56.73 that ranks fourth in the world this year, behind only Regan Smith among Americans and ahead of butterfly specialists Torri Huske (the reigning world champion in the event) and Claire Curzan. This event looks like one of the most competitive of the upcoming Nationals, with Walsh’s University of Virginia teammate Kate Douglass in the running for a special swim coming off the fastest-ever 100-yard fly at the NCAA Championships, and now we have to consider Walsh a real threat.

It was already obvious that Walsh was going to be a factor in the sprint freestyle races. Her 50 free time this weekend was 24.52, which would have tied for second in last year’s qualifying race when Walsh ended up in the crushing position of third. As for the 100 free, her time of 54.03 is already ahead of the 54.09 that Mallory Comerford swam to finish sixth in the 100 free at last year’s International Team Trials and secure a relay alternate spot for Worlds. So far this year, Abbey Weitzeil is the only American faster than Walsh in the 50 free, and Walsh ranks third in the 100 behind Weitzeil and Katie Ledecky.

Walsh did not race the 100 back this weekend (she did swim a time of 27.75 in the 50 back), but given her improved abilities at holding speed over the length of a 50-meter pool, you have to assume she will be in contention. Remember, this is a swimmer who clocked 48.26 in the 100-yard back merely two months ago, a half-second faster than anyone else ever. Only one other swimmer has ever broken 49. Smith currently looks like one of the two best 100 backstrokers in the world, but Walsh faced most of her main rivals for the No. 2 U.S. spot in the event at NCAAs (including Curzan, Katharine BerkoffPhoebe Bacon and Rhyan White) and beat them all handily.

At last year’s Nationals, after Walsh made her long-awaited return to a 53-second 100 freestyle, she said, “Going 53 was definitely the first step in a long journey to come of growing with it and getting better with the end speed.” The next step in that process is getting on to an international team and trying to help the United States at a major meet. Walsh has put herself in prime position to have plenty of opportunities in Indianapolis.