Kelsi Dahlia Used Post-Trials Reset to Propel Herself to Impressive ISL Season

DAHLIA Kelsi CAC Cali Condors (CAC) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 7 day 2 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Kelsi Dahlia competing during the 2021 ISL season -- Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Kelsi Dahlia Used Post-Trials Reset to Propel Herself to Impressive ISL Season

When Kelsi Dahlia finished the 100-meter butterfly final at this summer’s U.S. Olympic Trials, he run as the country’s premier swimmer in the event was over. Teenagers Torri Huske and Claire Curzan had taken the spots on the Olympic team, with Huske lowering a nine-year-old American record and Curzan already having swum faster than Dahlia’s best. Dahlia, who had placed ninth in the event at the 2016 Olympics and captured bronze in the event at the 2017 World Championships, had recorded her best swims in the event since 2018, but it had not been enough to return to the Olympic stage.

But Dahlia’s immediate reaction to the result was not a feeling of piercing anguish. Instead, she felt mostly relief. The long build-up to the critical moment had weighed on Dahlia, including during the one-year delay of the Olympics.

“I was just glad it was done, even though it wasn’t the result that I had hoped for,” Dahlia said. “As hard as I was trying to not [put pressure on myself], it was still there, and I couldn’t deny that.”

Of course, Dahlia was still disappointed to not have finished in the top-two, but realizing that “Torri and Claire were the best people for our country” and that her performances at the meet really had been strong provided some solace. She still watched the Olympics in support of her many friends on the U.S. team, and she enjoyed following their progress. “Actually seeing how fast the 100 fly final was made me feel better because I knew if all the stars aligned, I still wasn’t going to go as fast as the medalists did,” Dahlia said.

At the same time, Dahlia was working her way back into swimming. Cali Condors general manager Jason Lezak had asked Dahlia to return for the third season of the International Swimming League (ISL). Dahlia accepted the offer, and even after Trials, “I wanted to stand by that.”

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Kelsi Dahlia at the 2021 Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

She was committed to racing again in just a few months, but before that, she needed a reset. So after Trials, Dahlia’s return to the water came in its most relaxing, purest form: a 3000-yard outdoor swim with her husband, former French national teamer Thomas Dahlia. “I wasn’t trying to go fast to get my heart rate up, but swimming outside at that point was just really therapeutic. Just finding enjoyment and being in the water was what I found those few weeks right after Trials,” she said.

After a few weeks, she began training with the team at Louisville again but with one new provision: no doubles. Dahlia spent more time working with the sprint group under Louisville associate head coach Chris Lindauer, working in more power and speed work than she had been used to while getting away from some of the aerobic swimming that Dahlia admitted “is not my favorite thing.”

Dahlia believes that the lessened pool time has allowed her to push harder in the weight room and make significant strength gains there, but the benefits outside of her athletic career have been considerable, too.

“I’m able to just enjoy the process, just showing up excited because my world hasn’t revolved around swimming like it was going into Trials. As much as I didn’t want it to, that’s pretty much what kind of happened,” she said. “If my friend needs a babysitter, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m not exhausted, and I don’t have another practice today. I’m here for you.’ It’s been really cool to have the extra time.”

And that more balanced program has paid off in a big way during Dahlia’s ISL campaign. She has competed for the Condors for the entire season, and she has recorded 15 individual wins, six in the 100 fly (in seven tries), four in the 200 fly, four in butterfly skins and one in the 50 fly. In the Condors’ second playoff match, she broke the league record in the 100 fly with a time of 54.89. That was less than three tenths of Sarah Sjostrom’s world record of 54.61 and just five hundredths shy of Dahlia’s American record from all the way back in 2018.

As with all ISL matches, the final will commence with the women’s 100 fly, and Dahlia will be the odds-on favorite in a 100 fly race that will likely include Sjostrom and Olympic bronze medalist Emma McKeon. The world record is most certainly in jeopardy.

“I sure hope so. I would love to,” Dahlia said of the possibility of breaking the world record. “Whenever I focus on the time, it typically doesn’t happen, so I’m just trying to focus on my race strategy and staying relaxed.”

DAHLIA Kelsi CAC NELSON Beata CAC Cali Condors (CAC) ISL International Swimming League 2021 Match 6 day 2 Piscina Felice Scandone Napoli, Naples Photo Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Kelsi Dahlia (right) with Cali Condors teammate Beata Nelson — Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Dahlia also owns the top time in the league this season in the 200 fly, but she has not competed in the event since Cali teammate Hali Flickinger made her season debut. Dahlia is a pretty secure lock to swim the 100 fly, 50 fly and multiple relays in the final, but she did not know whether the 200 fly would be in the cards. Regardless, Dahlia will be a huge key for a Cali team seeking to repeat its 2020 league title against tough competition from Energy Standard and the London Roar.

After the ISL season is done, Dahlia does not know what her future holds. “I was hoping that during this time that would become more clear, but I’m still figuring it out,” Dahlia said. “I found a lot more joy racing here than I had in a really long time. It has been a lot of fun.”

The 27-year-old from New Jersey would undoubtedly be among the favorites in the 100 fly at the Short Course World Championships later this month, but Huske and Curzan will again be the representatives for the United States. So she will return home and enjoy some family time around the holidays. Soon, she said, “I’m going to have a meeting with my husband and my coaches when I get back to see what my goals will look like after this.” Dahlia said she won’t make any decisions “either way” before that.

Whatever happens in her future, Dahlia is proud of how she has carried herself and grown over the past two years, even when the COVID-19 pandemic deepened the stress she felt about pursuing a second Olympic berth. Even though it did not work out as she hoped, that does not mean the effort was for naught.

“There’s so many layers to it that I’m still figuring out: the stress of being out of the water and not racing for so long and trusting that even if I hadn’t been racing as much that I can still perform at that level,” Dahlia said. “I still am really proud of how consistent I was during that time when everything was shut down. I was really proud of how I worked out on my own. I never missed a weights session that whole time. I found a way to get it done, and I’ll be able to look back on that, and I’ll be able to carry that with me for a long time.”