Pressure Off for First Two U.S. Men’s Olympians Kalisz and Smith At Start of Pivotal Week

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Chase Kalisz is honored after qualifying for his second Olympics -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Pressure Off for First Two U.S. Men’s Olympians Kalisz and Smith At Start of Pivotal Week

Chase Kalisz was beaming. The first final of the 2021 Olympic Trials was a mirror image of the first final in 2016, with Kalisz taking first in the 400 IM and Georgia teammate Jay Litherland, just when his hopes of a spot in Tokyo seemed gone, coming from nowhere to crush the last 100 and pass the apparent runner-up. Kalisz even swam remarkably close to his time from five years ago, a 4:09.09 compared to a 4:09.54 in 2016.

The moment brought in a sense of déjà vu and yet still a little surreal. That’s because Kalisz was something of an afterthought in the immediate leadup to the Trials. He was a total wildcard, with his sparing mid-season swims best described as “ehh” and his most recent international results the disastrous showing at the 2019 World Championships, where Kalisz faded to bronze in the 200 IM and missed the final entirely in the 400 IM. He has not competed in the International Swim League, so his meet of any consequence had been those Worlds in 2019.

Sunday evening, after qualifying for his second Olympic team, Kalisz revealed exactly what happened: He had been dealing with a shoulder injury that completely derailed his 2019 season. He only started training for the 2019 World Championships that February, right around the time Georgia hosted the SEC championships. He even pointed out that he had not revealed the injury publicly beforehand.

“We’re clear over a year from it now. This was really the first time I ever brought it up because this is a sport and things happen,” Kalisz said. “I think more so than the pain I was feeling in my shoulder and the clicking I was taking every single stroke. It was a mental thing for me that was hard to overcome because I had never really dealt with injuries.”

Even after prelims, many were sleeping on Kalisz, with Carson Foster having laid down the time to beat with a 4:10.50 in prelims and Litherland looming. It was just impossible to know what Kalisz had left in the tank when he had not posted an elite-level 400 IM in three years. Even at the halfway point in the final, Kalisz was nowhere, almost three seconds behind first-place Foster. Kalisz would admit later that he was a little bit “soft” in the first 200 meters.

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Kieran Smith prior to competing at the Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Meanwhile, in the evening’s second final, Kieran Smith and the men’s 400 free field were staring at the narrative that the U.S. men might not qualify a single swimmer for the Olympics in the event, continuing the trend of troublesome mid-distance and distance performances over the past five years. Unlike Kalisz, Smith swam very well in his last long course season, but his swimming career took off after that over the course of his sophomore and junior years at the University of Florida. He crushed an American record in the 500-yard free and nearly broke the 1:30 barrier in the 200-yard free.

So Smith had the added challenge of proving he could match up in the long course pool, but he dominated the 400 free final in route to a clear victory. His time of 3:44.86 crushed his previous lifetime best by almost three seconds.

On night one in Omaha, both Kalisz and Smith came through. They are the first two men officially named to the U.S. Olympic team, and the Americans are undoubtedly going to be dependent on these two when it comes to medal races in Tokyo.

In his 400 IM, Kalisz clearly showed that he was back on the level expected of him after he stormed to Olympic silver in the 400 IM in 2016 and world titles in both IM events a year later. Kalisz now ranks second in the world in the 400 IM, just seven hundredths behind Japanese gold medal favorite Daiya Seto.

Kalisz boasted of being a good second taper swimmer, and his results back that up. Look no further than 2016, when he cut almost three seconds from his Trials time in Rio. So for an American men’s team that has struggled, Kalisz now looks like a virtual medal lock in the 400 IM.

And his 200 fly and 200 IM to come? Look out. The pressure is off. Kalisz could get onto the Olympic team in a wide-open 200 fly, and he could establish himself as a favorite for Olympic gold with a strong 200 IM. Any lingering doubt in Kalisz’s head that maybe he’s no longer the same swimmer from 2016 or 2017—completely understandable after two lost years of racing—is gone.

Smith, meanwhile, now gets set to go in the 200 free, with prelims beginning just 15 hours after he secured his first Olympic berth. And Smith’s peripherals suggest he is likely better in the 200. While his 3:44.86 in the 400 free is not close to what it will take to win a medal in Tokyo—and Smith, while he was happy with his swim, admitted as much—his best chance at a medal would likely come as a key component of the U.S. men’s 800 free relay, a squad that has won four straight Olympic gold medals with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte leading the way.

In order to have a chance at continuing that streak, and in fact to even win a medal in that race, the U.S. needs Smith to be in the 1:45-low or 1:44 range and combine that with improvements from others in the field.

But like Kalisz, Smith now knows he belongs on the list as a potential star of the Trials. His short course skills do convert to long course. And for both Olympians, the returnee in Kalisz and the first-time qualifier in Smith, having that secured spot on the team will give them the ultimate boost, the fallback option to take the pressure off at the most pressure-packed meet in the world.

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