Gretchen Walsh ‘Kind of In Shock’ After Getting Back to 53-Second 100 Free

Gretchen Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Gretchen Walsh ‘Kind of In Shock’ After Getting Back to 53-Second 100 Free

In one resounding swim, Gretchen Walsh put two years of baggage built up through two disappointing qualification meets behind her. Her runnerup finish in the women’s 100 freestyle at U.S. Nationals was not a lifetime best, but she had not been so quick since she was a 16-year-old entering her junior year of high school.

Now, she is a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Virginia, and after finishing a disappointing 28th place in the 100 free at the 2021 Olympic Trials and then 22nd at April’s International Team Trials, Walsh was second in the national final behind only Natalie Hinds. Her time was 53.86, making her the fifth-fastest American in the event this year.

“I was honestly kind of in shock when I hit the wall just because it’s been a while since I’ve seen that time up there,” Walsh said. “It’s definitely been a long journey to get to that point.”

On the last day of the International Team Trials, Walsh had another chance to qualify for her first senior-international team in the 50 free, but she ended up third, just one hundredth away from a spot at the World Championships. With an entire summer ahead of her, Walsh and Virginia coach Todd DeSorbo resolved to figure out her long course 100 free.

Walsh realized that she was essentially getting lost during the opening split of her 100 free. She is a natural sprinter, but she was going out far too slow to match her abilities. As Walsh described it, she was “reverting back to this weird instinct to not swim it correctly.” The solutions for that, she and DeSorbo decided, were adding more endurance freestyle work into her training and being deliberate in rehearsing what that opening speed should feel like.

“I’ve definitely been focusing on body awareness, being aware of how fast I’m going in practice,” Walsh said. “Really being aware of how I should feel when I’m going a certain speed. In the past, when I swim the 100 free, I’ve gotten really nervous, and it’s all this internalized pressure, and I’ve kind of neglected what I know.”

To help Walsh ease sense of pressure, they decided, was by racing the 100 free in a practice suit. Walsh swam the 100 free in tune-up meets in a practice suit, and she even walked out for prelims at Nationals without a racing suit on. After swimming a mark of 54.77 in prelims, it was time to put the suit back on, and suddenly, she had her old speed and form back. No, the finals race was not perfect, especially on the back half as Hinds went by her, but it was a huge improvement.

“I was like, ‘It’s time for me to try something new,’ to approach this race differently and be open to the idea of honestly re-learning how to swim the race, and that’s exactly what I’ve done this summer,” Walsh said. “It really has paid off, and I feel a lot more comfortable swimming it now, more like myself and how I’m supposed to swim it. I’m a sprinter, and I take it out. I’ve got that back, so I’m really happy.”

After the race, Walsh was touched by an influx of text messages congratulating her on the breakthrough. “I think everyone knows the struggle I’ve been going through and everyone wants me to do well, which I can feel from my coaches, my teammates, my former teammates and former coaches,” she said. “This whole community of people is rooting for me, and I’ve really felt that this whole summer. I really couldn’t thank them enough.”

Walsh had the second day of Nationals off from racing, but still on her schedule for the meet are the 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke and 50 free. The splash-and-dash has been solid all along, and Walsh believes she is capable of a drop from the mark that left her just off the World Championships team, but the 100 back brings a sense of nerves for her.

Her backstroke was a revelation during year one at Virginia as she swam the fastest 50-yard back relay leadoff ever (since surpassed), and then she broke the existing American record in the 100-yard back at the NCAA Championships while finishing second. She has natural raw speed and excellent underwater dolphin kicks, which fits short course backstroke perfectly, but she has not yet mastered the long course version of the event yet.

So once again, she will race prelims in a practice suit. The intent is the same as the 100 free, a different feel to the race and less pressure, but she has an ambitious goal to reach before the suit can return.

“Under 1:00,” Walsh said. “I have been getting close to my best time (1:00.64) in a practice suit. If anything like yesterday happens, I think I’ll be able to do it.”

And if she is just off that barrier, Walsh thinks DeSorbo might suggest she don the tech suit for the final anyway. The racing-in-a-practice-suit experience has accomplished its intent, helping Walsh get back to the blistering speed from her high school years and reestablishing her place among America’s elite in the 100 free.

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