How Thomas Heilman Broke the Mold to Qualify for World Championships

Thomas Heilman -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Editorial content for the 2023 World Aquatics Championships is sponsored by FINIS, a longtime partner of Swimming World and leading innovator of suits, goggles and equipment.


How Thomas Heilman Broke the Mold to Qualify for World Championships

Before this year, the last time a 16-year-old male swimmer represented the United States at a major international competition was more than two decades ago. Larsen Jensen swam at the 2002 Pan Pacific Championships, winning medals in the 800 and 1500 freestyle, and one year earlier at the previous incarnation of the World Championships held in Fukuoka, a 16-year-old Michael Phelps achieved his first golden moment.

Phelps was only 15 when he qualified for the 2000 Olympics in the 200 butterfly, finished fifth in the final and then broke the world record early the following year. Shortly after his 16th birthday, Phelps led wire-to-wire in the 200 fly World Championships final, finishing in a time of 1:54.58 to lower his world record and secure the first of his eventual 15 individual world crowns.

Men’s swimming has developed into an older sport, with college-aged and post-college athletes dominating on the national and international level, and that makes the emergence of 16-year-old Thomas Heilman all the more surprising. Heilman had been quickly rising through the American ranks, breaking National Age Group records in short course and long course and winning six gold medals at the 2022 Junior Pan Pacific Championships. His development suggested he would soon make an impact nationally, but breaking through to a senior-level U.S. team was surely a year or two away.

But Heilman, coached by Gary Taylor at Cavalier Aquatics, never thought that way. His 200 fly best time was 1:56.52, which was a one-second drop when he won silver at Junior Pan Pacs in 2022. Why couldn’t he drop another one-and-a-half-seconds or two seconds to give himself a chance at qualifying for the World Championships? Such drops are atypical at the highest level, but Heilman did not know and did not care. His paces in practice suggested a 1:54 was possible, so why not?

That simple logic allowed Heilman to travel to Indianapolis believing in his potential for this year, even when few others considered him a realistic possibility for a trip to Fukuoka.

“I thought I had a decent chance (to qualify for Worlds),” Heilman said. “Obviously, the United States is really deep in terms of swimming. In my training this year, I’ve been hitting good times, and I thought throughout the season I’ve been on good pace to try to make a run. That was kind of my thought process. I had faith in my training, in myself, and my coaching staff really put me in a good situation to achieve that.”


Thomas Heilman — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

On day one of U.S. Nationals, Heilman went off in the 200 fly prelims, dropping down to 1:55.11 to qualify second for the final. At night, he went even faster, closing on Carson Foster in the closing meters and touching in 1:54.54. The time was a National Age Group record and a significant one: he beat the mark Phelps swam 22 years earlier in his inaugural world-title performance. With that swim, Heilman booked a spot heading to the same prestigious championship meet.

Two days later, it was the same story in the 100 fly. Heilman qualified seventh for the final, bumped up to sixth after Ryan Murphy scratched, and he found himself in a lane next to world-record holder Caeleb Dressel. Once again, Heilman got himself into the top-two, swimming away from the likes of Dressel and Shaine Casas to touch in 51.19, eight tenths ahead of his best time at the start of the day.

Heilman is one of two male swimmers on the U.S. team yet to reach college age, although the other, Henry McFadden, is a relay-only swimmer at Worlds. In fact, Heilman is the first pre-college men’s swimmer to race for the U.S. at a major competition since 2017, when Bobby Finke finished 21st in the 1500 free at the World Championships.

In Fukuoka, Heilman could qualify for individual finals; his times from Nationals ranked him in the top-10 in the world in both butterfly distances and would have been quick enough to qualify for the top-eight at last year’s Worlds. And there’s no reason to doubt Heilman’s big-meet performance abilities. He just proved his mental toughness when trying to achieve the greatest accomplishment of his swimming career thus far at an all-important selection meet, and before that, Heilman annihilated his best times in his prolific performance at his first-ever international meet, last year’s Junior Pan Pacs.

There is a very strong chance Heilman leaves Fukuoka with at least one medal: if he swims the butterfly leg on the U.S. men’s 400 medley relay in prelims, he will earn whatever medal the finals quartet captures. And we can’t even rule out his chances at an individual medal this year, especially in the 200 fly where only three men broke 1:54 in last year’s Worlds final.

Given his recent track, a 1:53 looks possible soon enough, as does a 50-second 100 fly. The ceiling will be even greater in 2024 after Heilman has another year to build strength, and he could impact the freestyle events on the national level as well. Last year as a 15-year-old, he swam as fast as 49.14 in the 100 free and 1:47.98 on an 800 free relay at Junior Pan Pacs.

But regardless of how this teenager performs in Fukuoka, the future is undeniably bright. If Heilman can continue along his current scintillating path, he will continue to amaze everyone watching around the world. And why doubt him? Heilman does not know any better than to keep pushing forward.

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