Gretchen Walsh Shining On College Scene as Olympic Destiny Awaits

Gretchen Walsh -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Gretchen Walsh Shining On College Scene as Olympic Destiny Awaits

When the final laps of the 2023-24 college swim season are complete, expect Gretchen Walsh to be named the NCAA Swimmer of the Meet. No other swimmer in the nation can match the production of this Nashville-native in the NCAA format, which prioritizes sprints and relays in a 25-yard pool. Her dual-meet performances so far this season have been among the most impressive in recent memory, foreshadowing stunning end-of-season efforts.

At the national-championship meet in Athens, Ga., Walsh will be favored to defend her national titles in the 100 backstroke and 100 freestyle and to add the 50 free to her collection for the first time. She could swim the fastest times in history in all three events. And maybe Virginia loses some firepower on relays with the graduation of Kate Douglass while high-profile transfer Claire Curzan sits out this college season, but the Cavaliers will still be favored in all four sprint relays with Walsh joined by a group including her older sister Alex WalshMaxine ParkerAimee Canny and graduate transfer Jasmine Nocentini.

Every time Walsh has come up in a high-profile moment in college swimming, she has come through. That was not the case when it came to long course competition, not until Walsh earned her breakthrough at last summer’s U.S. Nationals. A best-time in the 100-meter free, her first in four years, put her on the World Championships team in the 400 free relay. Walsh proceeded to set an American record in winning the 50 butterfly and place second in the 100 fly and 50 free to round out a full program for her senior-international debut in Fukuoka, Japan.

Note that Walsh’s skill set, backstroke does not fit neatly into her long course program, even after she swam a time of 48.26 in the yards event last year. Walsh has clocked under 1:00 in the long course version of the event, and she placed third in the 50 back at Nationals, but for a swimmer who relies so heavily on her raw speed and her powerful underwater dolphin kicking, the 100 back would be a tough event to crack into in the United States. The U.S. favorites in the event, Regan Smith and Katharine Berkoff, finished 2-3 at Worlds while Curzan was the bronze medalist in 2022.


Gretchen Walsh — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Still, Walsh showed plenty of long course speed in 2023 to dispense with any notion that she was just a short course swimmer, even if her 50-meter performances still have not reached the dazzling level of her times in the 25-yard tank. Considering only Olympic events as the Paris Games beckon, Walsh currently ranks No. 3 in the world in the 100 fly, No. 9 in the 50 free and No. 10 in the 100 free, setting herself up nicely for June’s Olympic Trials.

College level, check. National long course level, check. The only arena in which this 20-year-old has anything left to prove is internationally, where Walsh will be hoping to channel her up-and-down performance at the World Championships into a valuable learning experience leading into what she hopes is a Paris performance to remember next summer.

In Fukuoka, Walsh led off the U.S. women’s 400 free relay in 54.06, nine tenths off her best time from Nationals, and she was more than one second slower in finishing eighth in the 100 fly final. However, Walsh would rebound over the second half of the meet. She earned her first individual Worlds medal with a bronze in the 50 fly, and although she missed the 50 free final (the semifinals held mere minutes after the 50 fly final), she rebounded to swim a key butterfly leg on the U.S. women’s 400 medley relay. Walsh’s 57.06 split was still well off her best time of 56.34, but it was sufficient to help deliver American gold.

Her improvement throughout the eight-day competition is a good sign for improved performances as Walsh gets used to international racing. She’s surely not the only swimmer to struggle when debuting on that level, and she will not be the last. Walsh can draw inspiration from Douglass, still Walsh’s training partner in Charlottesville and a swimmer who was similarly a short course specialist first but now a great long course swimmer, one who forced herself into position where the U.S. depended upon her efforts. In Fukuoka, Douglass was the world champion in the 200 IM, the silver medalist in the 200 breaststroke soon after finishing fourth in the 100 free and a member of four U.S. finals relay squads.

There’s every reason to believe that Walsh will make a significant positive impact on the U.S. medal count come Paris, even if she has yet to achieve those levels in international racing. In the meantime, fans should refrain from looking away any time Walsh enters the pool this college season.

A 22.54 50 back, 20.95 50 free, 49.11 100 fly, 49.17 100 back and 46.42 100 free in one weekend? In a practice suit? Are you kidding? Absolutely, the records in all of those events will be high-alert come championship season, and we can’t discount the possibility of a 47-second 100 back.

Walsh already solved college swimming during her freshman and sophomore campaigns at Virginia, and this one could be the most magnificent of all, even as she keeps one eye focused on the more daunting and possibly more meaningful prize of Olympic glory coming into plain sight.

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