How Carson Foster is Fulfilling Potential as Next American Medley Star

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Carson Foster

How Carson Foster is Fulfilling Potential as Next American Medley Star

It was the first long course World Championships final for 20-year-old American Carson Foster, and at the halfway point, he had the lead. Anointed a rising star five years earlier, Foster had been building since then toward this moment, a showcase swim with senior-level medals on the line. Day one of the 2022 World Championships brought the 400 IM, and Foster flipped into breaststroke in 1:58.18, about a half-second in front of France’s Leon Marchand.

But then, Foster could only watch as Marchand clawed ahead and then built a substantial lead over the two lengths of breaststroke. Marchand out-split Foster by three seconds on that segment, and the race for gold was over. Foster made up some ground on freestyle and still believed he was going to run down Marchand until the final 25 meters, but the American ended up with a silver medal.

To the uniformed eye, the race appeared a crushing defeat for Foster, but he had actually produced the best swim of his life by an enormous margin.

“I hit the wall, and I saw 4:06, which at first I thought that’s what [Marchand] went because I obviously didn’t expect him to go 4:04,” Foster said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, I went 4:06.’”

Foster had knocked almost two seconds off his lifetime best, and he had become the eighth-fastest performer in history and the third-quickest American ever behind Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. That breaststroke leg that left him so far behind Marchand? The split was 1:10.32, which was quicker than Phelps swam on the way to the world record of 4:03.84 at the 2008 Olympics. Marchand had just split 1:07.28, by far the fastest breaststroke split in history, as he threatened Phelps’ world record through 350 meters before finishing in 4:04.28, the second-fastest time ever.

Absolutely nothing for Foster to be ashamed about. “I felt like I kept a very positive attitude the entire race, which is huge for me,” he said.

This was a swim years in the making as Foster climbed the levels of the sport, in his high school years with the Mason Manta Rays in Cincinnati and then in two years at the University of Texas. But only three months prior, Foster’s ability to perform in significant finals races had been in serious doubt. Foster’s track record was indicative of a swimmer who could swim very fast times but not in the moments that counted.


Championship Setbacks

Listen to Foster explain what drives his swimming career, and it makes sense that he was an Olympic Trials qualifier at age 14 (he finished 43rd in his only event), a Junior Nationals winner in four events and a World Junior Championships silver medalist at age 15 and on the verge of breaking through to the senior level before he even got to college.

“I’m just obsessed with swimming. Practice is my favorite part of the day, as weird as that sounds. I love getting in,” Foster said. “I just love finding something new in practice and having it click. It just makes my week, and then all I want to do is get in and work on it.”

When Foster returned to Olympic Trials in 2021, he had become a serious contender to qualify for the Tokyo-bound squad in the meet’s first event, the 400 IM. Foster was the top qualifier out of prelims in the event, and he had the lead in the final for the first 280 meters when Chase Kalisz moved slightly ahead, but Foster was still in position to qualify for Tokyo until Jay Litherland used a furious finishing surge to move ahead into second place.

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Carson Foster at the U.S. International Team Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Foster missed out on his chance to qualify for the Games, one day before the 400 IM Olympic final, Foster raced the 400 IM at a low-key meet hosted at his home pool in Austin, Texas, and he recorded a mark of 4:08.46 in the event, the fastest time in the world for 2021. In Tokyo, Kalisz and Litherland earned gold and silver, respectively, but no one in the Olympic final would surpass Foster’s time. In the aftermath, Foster described a strategy change that allowed him to conserve energy over the first half of the race and then finish strong on freestyle as he set his sights ahead to the 2022 World Championships.

The 2021-22 college season saw a determined Foster hitting quick times week after week, and midway through the year, he swam his first-ever senior international competition, the Short Course World Championships, and he won two individual medals in the IM events along with a relay gold. However, at his next focus meet, the NCAA Championships, doubts about Foster began to creep in again.

In Foster’s first individual race, the 200-yard IM, he ended up sixth, a full 2.5 seconds behind first-place Marchand. The next morning, Foster arrived at the McAuley Aquatic Center for the 400-yard IM prelims fully expecting to break the American record, Kalisz’s 2017 mark of 3:33.42. Foster put up a serious challenge to that record and finished in 3:33.79, then the second-fastest time ever. But that evening, Foster swam two seconds slower, and he ended up third behind Cal’s Hugo Gonzalez and Arizona State’s Marchand.

Looking back now, Foster views this NCAA moment as a sign he lacked the maturity to handle the physical, emotional and mental demands of a championship meet. Channeling disappointment for a prelims race was missing the point, and he was “dead” by the time he got to the final.

“I did that completely on purpose. I was fired up about the 200 IM the night before. I was ticked that I got sixth and didn’t go a time that I felt like reflected where I was in that event,” Foster said. “I think my emotions kind of got the best of me that day. I wanted to prove to everyone that I was better than my 1:40 I went the day before. I definitely learned from that lesson just don’t let my emotions carry me to being stupid at a meet like that.”


Learning to Perform in Big Moments

After NCAAs, Foster admitted he faced some self-doubt, particularly with just a month of turnaround time before the U.S. International Team Trials, the meet that Foster had built up as his shot at redemption after missing the Olympic team. “I was kind of in a little bit of a funk for a week,” he said.

What helped to get him back on track, Foster said, was a technique called brain-spotting. Foster had learned about brain-spotting in late 2021, and he credited the practice with helping him believe in his own abilities, separate his self-worth from swimming success and relieve the pressure entering important moments.

And in late April, he put all the pieces together as he qualified for Worlds. Foster admitted that having the 200 freestyle before the individual medley events helped since he could swim that event without huge expectations, and he ended up finishing third to clinch a relay spot for Budapest. A day later, Foster raced the 400 IM final, and although he again fell behind on the breaststroke leg, he surged back ahead on freestyle to secure the win.

“It was super satisfying. I would say that night was probably the most satisfying as I left, and then the next day, as I watched the race and looked at splits, obviously the perfectionist in me was like, ‘that was not a great race’ with the way I swam it, but execution is what matters at Trials, and times kind of go out the window as long as you get first or second,” Foster said. “It was a huge step for me in terms of confidence. The monkey is off my back. I did it. I’m going to Worlds.”

When he arrived in Budapest, Foster swam as if he belonged, as if he deserved all the accolades as the next great American medley swimmer. He proved that in the 400 IM and again four days later in the final of the 200 IM. He clinched another silver medal in that race, again behind Marchand, as he swam under 1:56 for the first time (1:55.71).

Perhaps more significantly, Foster showed the poise and maturity he had been missing as recently as the NCAA Championships as he advanced through the rounds. Chilling out in prelims is a skill that takes time for young swimmers to develop because they naturally worry about swimming too slow and not advancing.

Foster was texting with Texas assistant coach Wyatt Collins about his plan for the event, and he said, “I would love to be 1:57-high in prelims, 1:56-mid to low in semis and rip a 1:55-mid at finals.” Sure enough, Foster hit those marks exactly.

“It was pretty cool. It gives me a lot more confidence going into not only Worlds but also NCAAs knowing that I kind of am getting to the point where I know where each of those times feels like,” Foster said. “It’s definitely making me more comfortable going through the rounds, but I think a lot of that can be attributed to me just being more confident in myself that I’m going to be able to do it when it matters.”


Expecting Greatness

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Carson Foster (left) with Leon Marchand and Chase Kalisz on the podium at the World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

In the aftermath of the Olympic Trials 400 IM last year, Kalisz took a moment to speak with Foster. He reassured his young challenger of his talent and his potential, and Kalisz gave Foster his phone number. Over the next year, Kalisz began providing feedback and mentorship. Kalisz made suggestions ranging from tips on where to push the pace in races and technical aspects of breaststroke what Foster should expect in each session at a major competition.

“We developed a texting relationship throughout the NCAA season. He was encouraging me, watching my races and helping we with strategy. Obviously, going to Trials was a little bit of a weird switch because we were both competing to try to get spots, but he continued to help me and support me through Trials, which was super cool, especially because I was doing both of his events, and we were competing to try and make Worlds together,” Foster said.

“I’ve learned a lot from him. It’s been really special. He’s been a great mentor so far, and I don’t think Chase is going to be done anytime soon, hopefully.”

One year after their Trials introduction, Kalisz was again at Foster’s side after Foster clinched his World Championship silver medal in the 400 IM, and immediately, Kalisz spelled out the future he believed Foster was capable of. He pointed to Marchand’s 4:04. “That’s Carson’s next goal,” Kalisz said. “I know Carson has big dreams and big goals, and he wants to compete for a gold.”

Foster did not hesitate in eagerly accepting that lofty challenge.

“I left that race obviously pumped up about my 4:06, but I was like, ‘Alright, this is the new standard.’ I fully expect that I’m going to be racing Leon for years to come, God-willing. We’re going to create a great rivalry hopefully. 4:04 is now the standard, and if you want to win, you’ve got to be 4:03,” Foster said.

The idea of chasing Marchand will motivate Foster through practices, and he wants to use Marchand’s inspiration to lower his breaststroke splits to a more competitive but also to better capitalize on his own strengths.

“There’s only a certain point I’m going to get my breaststroke to if I’m not a natural breaststroker like Leon,” Foster said. “For me, it’s doing what Leon is doing. It’s making his weak stroke solid and really capitalizing on his best stroke, and my best strokes are obviously fly and back, so I’ve just got to try to capitalize on those. If I’m going to go 4:03 or we’re going to push each other to try to go 4:02, we’re not going to be able to have a weak stroke.”

Think about that: Foster is a week removed from crushing his best time to join a very small group of men who have ever been 4:06 in the 400 IM, and he’s already speaking about getting under a legendary world record, Phelps’ 4:03 that has been untouched for 14 years. Foster has always possessed the physical tools to make that happen, but it’s the mental fortitude shown through his World Championships debut that puts such astounding goals into the realm of realistic.

That mindset does not only apply to Foster’s individual swims. The day after his 200 IM at Worlds, Foster joined a U.S. men’s 800 freestyle relay seeking a return to the medal podium after a devastating fourth-place finish at the Tokyo Games. Foster handled the second leg after Drew Kibler, a teammate of Foster’s at the University of Texas, and Trenton Julian and Kieran Smith finished off a gold-medal performance for a group of men all age 23 or younger.

The Americans had an easier path to gold in Budapest with the Olympic-champion squad from Great Britain missing star Duncan Scott, but Foster and his U.S. teammates have fully bought into the goal of reestablishing control of that event, just like the Americans possessed during the Phelps-Lochte era from 2004 to 2016.

“The expectation was from the minute we left trials try to win that relay. Obviously, it would have been a lot closer if Duncan would have been there,” Foster said. “Now, our mission is to keep it. Great Britain is not going away anytime soon. Australia is going to continue to improve that relay, so it’s not going to be easy, and we know that. Our goal going into that really was to get the world record. We got unfinished business there as well. All four of us are completely expecting to be back there next year and try to go 6:57 or 6:58.”


Building for More

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Carson Foster at the 2022 World Championships — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

It would be inappropriate to describe Foster’s journey through swimming without mentioning the swimmer who has been on the journey with him almost the entire way: his older brother Jake. They have trained together their entire lives except for the one year when Jake had started college and Carson was a high school senior. They are both individual medley specialists, although Jake’s best stroke is breaststroke. Carson admitted that he chose Texas as his college home because Jake was already there.

“Jake and I have gotten so much closer in college. We’re best friends, and there’s very few nights during the year where we’re not hanging out,” Carson said. “I’m not going to lie. It does get heated during practice. Jake and I are both pretty good at being reserved during practice toward other people. We don’t like to yell at other people that much, but if it’s one of us doing something to the other person, being a Sally Save-up or going hard in warmup, one of us is going to get on each other. I think everyone in our group will attest to that.”

At the 2021 Olympic Trials, Jake finished fifth in the 400 IM and sixth in the 200 breast, and this year, he came within a second of qualifying for the World Championships in the 200 breast with a third-place finish. On his brother’s swimming success, Carson said, “It’s probably hard. I’ve gotten a little more attention for my swimming to this point, and I think that Jake is going to start hitting the spotlight pretty soon with what I think he has in store for the next couple years.”

Jake will have another championship meet opportunity later this month at U.S. Nationals in Irvine, Calif., where he will aim for times among the best in the country in the 200 breast and the medley events. Carson, meanwhile, will skip Nationals after his busy racing schedule in the spring and summer, but he will swim a pair of events (200 butterfly and 200 backstroke) at a Sectionals meet in Austin this weekend before winding down his season.

And as he finishes off the summer and prepares to move into a 2022-23 season that will include his third collegiate campaign for the Longhorns and end with another World Championships, Foster is feeling as assured as ever about his swimming, his place in the sport and his future. The physical skills and the approach to training have always been there, and over the past few months, Foster’s mindset and mental preparation for the biggest races have allowed him to swim freely and show what he is capable of.

“Seeing how fast I can go, that’s the most fun part about swimming to me,” Foster said. “Obviously, there’s going to be a point somewhere down the road where I’m not getting faster, and I think I’ll be content with just loving the sport no matter what it’s giving me. I think for right now, though, swimming free is just being in the ready room or being at practice and being like, ‘Alright, let’s do something I’ve never done before.’ And that’s what excites me.”

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dscott
1 month ago

Great writer and worthy subject. Thanks.

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Banana Republic
1 month ago

Great guy with a really bright future ahead. You’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the future! Go Rays!

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