‘Hail Mary’ Answered for David Johnston in 1,500 Free Performance

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

‘Hail Mary’ Answered for David Johnston in 1,500 Free Performance

David Johnston was hoping to land on a less desperate metaphor. But with five days to mull it over, it was the best he could do.

Johnston had finished third in the 400 freestyle and fourth in the 800 free at U.S. Olympic Trials. He’d arrived in Indianapolis with a sore throat and didn’t feel better physically until the week wore on.

So with time to ponder and the football stadium setting, he set his mind on a path forward.

“I’m in a football stadium, I thought of this the other day, I was like, I’m just going to get out there, and I’m just going to give it everything I have,” Johnston said. “I’m just going to kind of throw a Hail Mary, so to speak. And I just went in there and basically said, ‘Hail Mary and get to the wall in second.’”

Johnston’s Hail Mary landed in safe hands, as his hand hit the wall .26 seconds ahead of Luke Whitlock to seal second place in the men’s 1,500 freestyle and the final American spot at the Paris Olympics.

Johnston had been through the emotional ringer in Indy. He started with a third-place finish in the 400 free, his 3:46.19 finishing .73 off the winning time of Aaron Shackell and .43 behind Kieran Smith for the spot in Paris. Johnston turned for home .35 up on Smith only to be overtaken coming home. He was third in prelims of the men’s 800 free, then fourth in the final, never mounting a charge at the 1-2 result of Bobby Finke and Whitlock.

Physically, Johnston wasn’t feeling great. That was particularly worrying given that he swam through the World Championships in Fukuoka last year with undiagnosed mononucleosis. He finished 17th in the 400 there, then had to dial down his fall season while managing the viral infection, which included two weeks out of the water and a lot more single practices than he would’ve preferred. All of that came with an Olympic redshirt at Texas and a move to work with coach Mark Schubert at TST.

The micro challenge at Trials, as his body rebounded, was to shift his mindset. Only by getting over feeling “pretty dejected” after the 800 would he be able to mount a charge at the 1,500. .

David Johnston; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“I feel like my body has really, really rebounded these last couple of days,” he said. “But it wasn’t just a physical rebound, it was a mental rebound, because coming in here tonight, my mentality switched from ‘I can’t get third, I can’t get third, I need to beat those guys,’ to, ‘I’m just going to go out there for these 30 laps and I’m going to give it everything I have.’ And whatever happens I can get out of the pool saying that that was my all. I think that mentality switch, and just nutting up and racing those guys really helped me as opposed to coming in here worried and feeling the pressure.”

The 1,500 played out just as he’d hoped. The Dallas native and eight-time All-American for the Longhorns knows he doesn’t have the fastest kick. So with Finke separating from the pack early – the reigning Olympic champ set a meet record and U.S. Open record of 14:40.28 – Johnston knew it would be him and Whitlock for the second spot.

He was content to let Whitlock drive the pace early. But Johnston worked the segment of the race from 1,000 meters to 1,400. He look the lead at the 1,100-meter wall and set to work building the cushion he figured he’d need coming home. Whitlock’s last 50 was 27.74 to Johnston’s 29.20, the gap falling precipitously in the final meters. But Johnston had constructed enough of a lead to fend off the rally.

“I had to put everything I had into that into that last 500,” Johnston said. “And the last 100 or 200, when I was pushing off the wall, my legs were just shot and my thighs were cramping up. But I just had to get to the wall, and I almost died really bad at the end. But I just kind of hobbled across and I’d done just enough between that 1,000 and 1,400 to have that room.”

Before the race, Johnston got a reminder from Schubert that is classic for the Hall of Fame distance guru. Two months before Trials, Schubert had Johnston do a 3,000 for time in a fast suit. Johnston clocked in around 30:58. Schubert’s message Sunday was to remember what worked that day, what attacking that swim felt like, and bring that into the final.

“I think Mark Schubert’s taught me a lot this year of how to be tough and how to swim distance,” David Johnston said. “And that’s why I went over to him. So I’m just happy that it all worked out.”

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