In Last Go-Round, Gunnar Bentz Hopes to Get Most of Second Olympics

Gunnar Bentz; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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In Last Go-Round, Gunnar Bentz Hopes to Get Most of Second Olympics

One way or another, Gunnar Bentz was going to get away this August.

The plan for the 25-year-old was to swim at Olympic Trials in June. If he didn’t find himself on the Olympic team, as he was in 2016 as part of the 800 freestyle relay, then by August he’d jet off to South America. He had some friends to see, starting with backpacking through Colombia, then renting a motorcycle to trek through Ecuador and Peru.

Instead, Bentz happily canceled that trip in favor of another that, if he’s honest, involves a lot of the same elements.

“It was going to be last go-round,” Bentz said by phone from the U.S. training camp in Hawaii. “So now I get to do this and extend my career by about a month and get to spend time with some amazing people in amazing places so I couldn’t be happier.”


Chase Kalisz, center, and Jay Litherland, right, with Gunnar Bentz at 2017 Nationals. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Not only is Bentz getting one last meet at the Tokyo Games, able to retire as a two-time Olympian. He’ll do so as a swimming trivia answer for generations, one of the two men to represent the U.S. in the first 200 butterfly without Michael Phelps since 1996. And he approaches his final Games as an important bridge between leaders of the past and a young crop of future stars.

First and foremost, the Tokyo program requires an adjustment in Bentz’s mindset. In Rio, he had one swim to worry about, prelims of the 800 freestyle relay. He had finished fifth in that event at Olympic Trials to complement fourth-place finishes in the 200 individual medley, 400 IM and 200 fly. Bentz got a gold medal in Rio, with Clark Smith and Jack Conger as those used in prelims but not finals. For a self-professed 400 IMer, training just freestyle for the month between Trials and the Games felt unusual.

This year, the change is a bit more joyful. Phelps’ retirement left a void in butterfly, and an injury in 2020 dented world junior champ Luca Urlando’s status as the presumptive favorite. Despite being fifth in prelims in the 200, Bentz surged in a wild final. Trenton Julian, the leader at 150 meters, faded, as did Urlando, allowing Zach Harting to get to the wall first in 1:55.06. Bentz’s final 50, the fastest in the race at 30.57, allowed him to rocket up from fifth to wedge into second, .28 seconds behind Harting and .11 ahead of Urlando.

On the cusp of retirement, that means Bentz has swum his last backstroke and breaststroke sets, as he joked with his University of Georgia coach, Jack Bauerle. As for filling Phelps’s shoes, he recognizes it as an impossible task, but having a relationship with the greatest Olympic swimmer of all-time to glean advice has helped.

“Like anything, we use it as motivation,” Bentz said. “Filling those shoes is daunting, and it’s going to be difficult. Obviously having Michael as someone who we can communicate with – he’s said feel free to reach out, and I have – has been extremely helpful. I think we’re focusing on our own races.”

Bentz is also looking to translate the leadership lessons of an older generation. Ryan Murphy and Caeleb Dressel have inherited the mantle of captaincy. Beyond having to replace the presence of Phelps, this delegation lacks veteran campaigners like Ryan Lochte, Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin, among others, from Rio.

Bentz, especially given his limited swimming program, is ready to shoulder some of that.

“Being a first-timer last time in Rio, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and just feeling lucky to be here,” he said. “I had all these great veterans of the sport and ambassadors there like Michael and Tony and Nate, so this time around, some of us more veteran guys get to take on that role and pursue more of a leadership role.

“That’s really exciting, and it’s something we’ve been trying to do at camp. It’s really easy to do because these young kids on the team, they’ve been fantastic as well. There’s 15-, 16-year-olds here and they are so mature beyond their years as people, and they’ve done such a good job of it.”

As for his swims, Bentz feels freed of expectations and ready to perform. He believes both he and Harting are capable of going quicker than in Omaha. They would need to be to make a final much less medal, with Harting and Bentz ranked 12th and 18th, respectively, in the world over the Olympic qualification period dating to March 1, 2019.

Bentz is approaching the Olympics the same way he did Trials. He thought Trials would be his final meet but chose not to let that weigh on him. Instead, he drew up a plan, scratching the 400 IM after finishing sixth in the prelims and scratching the 200 IM outright to pursue the opportunity in the 200 fly. He chose not to dwell on the pressure of it being his final meet, instead entering secure in all that he has accomplished and looking at a second Olympic trip as a bonus.

Now that he’s on that journey and he knows for certain that this is it, he wants to maximize the experience. But he knows there’s no downside.

“I know that we can both improve on our Trials times tremendously, and I think we are certainly in medal contention,” he said. “Sure they’re big shoes to fill, but it’s Team USA and we’re the best team in the world. If not this year, then down the line, there’s going to be people there. When a void happens, it almost sucks up other swimmers and causes them to improve rapidly. When you see those voids, they’re filled.”

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