Leah Hayes ‘Honored’ as She Qualifies for Worlds, Breaks Katie Hoff’s National Age Group Record

Leah Hayes -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Leah Hayes ‘Honored’ as She Qualifies for Worlds, Breaks Katie Hoff’s National Age Group Record

Leah Hayes walked out for the 400 IM final at the U.S. International Team Trials as the top seed, and the 16-year-old was staring at the biggest moment of her swimming career so far. To her right in lane three was Emma Weyant, the Olympic silver medalist in the event, and another lane over was Hali Flickinger, who had earned bronze in Tokyo. On the other side of Hayes was Katie Grimes, also 16, but Grimes was already an Olympic finalist.

In contention for most of the race, Hayes actually took the lead with 100 meters to go, could not live up to her incredible prelims performance, the three-second time drop that made her the top seed, as she ended up fourth behind Grimes, Weyant and Flickinger.

“I was a little disappointed after my 400 IM because I was seeded first and I came back fourth, but I was happy with the race,” she said. “I thought I swam well, and I gave it my best effort, so I didn’t want to let myself be disappointed.”

Hayes actually spent most of the week in Greensboro wearing a walking boot because of a recent stress fracture in her foot, but she insisted that it was not bothering her. She finished the 400 IM as the sixth-fastest swimmer in U.S. history in the 15-16 age group, trailing four Olympians plus the current American-record holder in the short course yards 400 IM.

Two days later, Hayes would have another chance to qualify for Worlds in the 200 IM. She received a stroke of good fortune when three of the top-four seeds (Kate Douglass, Torri Huske and Melanie Margalis) scratched, and then she survived a scare in prelims when she was announced as disqualified for a false start, but that DQ was quickly overturned.

In the final, Olympic silver medalist Alex Walsh built a substantial lead on the field through the middle 100 meters, but a brilliant breaststroke split helped Hayes pull into second place, 1.8 seconds ahead of anyone else going into the freestyle leg. Hayes sustained that gap on freestyle, and she touched the wall second.

At the finish, Walsh reached across the lane line to hug an exuberant Hayes, and television cameras captured Walsh telling Hayes, “That’s so fast!”

How fast? Hayes swam a time of 2:09.99, breaking the National Age Group record of 2:10.41 set by Katie Hoff on her way to winning gold in the event at the 2005 World Championships. Hayes became only the second 18-and-under American swimmer to break 2:10, joining Walsh. She smashed her lifetime best in the event by more than a second.

“To make the team, it’s definitely quite a surprise,” Hayes said. “I’m honored, and I’m looking forward to everything that’s going to happen.”

Hayes has lived most of her life with alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. She wore a wig in public for a few years after her diagnosis, but she has not worn a wig since fourth grade, when she revealed her diagnosis to her school class. The condition does not affect her at all in the pool, but she is easy to spot in races since she goes without a swim cap.

Despite her condition, Hayes has stressed the importance of living life as one’s authentic self, and that’s why she does not wear a wig. In the hours after she qualified for Worlds, Hayes’ raw and genuine emotions spilled out, particularly as she was introduced on deck at the Greensboro Aquatic Center as a member of the World Championships team.

“It’s still quite a shock,” Hayes said. “As we were getting our pictures taken and I was standing with all these incredible athletes, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I had a conversation with Katie Ledecky and with Lilly King. What in the world? So many incredible athletes, and it’s just humbling to be around them.”

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Julie Austin
1 year ago

Yay! So happy for Leah!!!

1 year ago

Leah is such an endearing and authentic athlete and has been so supportive of other swimmers. Keep on keeping on Leah!

BoJo swim
1 year ago

So awesome to hear and read stories of athletes deal with, and overcome adversity! Congratulations Leah!!!

robert kravutske
1 year ago

wow….I watched the race live……so fun!!!!……..you are right up with the ” big boys ” when you have a NAG record…….telle savalis says “who loves ya baby!!!!”……