Resilience and Guts Power Tom Shields to Pan American Games Redemption


Wonder how much Tom Shields cares about representing the United States in international competition? Wonder how much dedication he puts into his craft? Wonder how much a poor performance matters? For answers, look no further than the veteran’s Twitter account, and the Tweet he sent out on Tuesday night.

“No excuses. I’m ashamed. I’m sorry.”

Three brief sentences. All biting in nature. All – it was easy to interpret – from the heart. So, why the personal assault? Well, not long before Shields logged onto his social-media account, he contested the final of the 200-meter butterfly at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. The event turned out to be a disaster. There’s really no other way to say it.

Midway through that 200 fly, Shields was positioned to chase a podium spot, as he sat behind only Brazil’s Leonardo de Deus, the eventual champion. But as the proverbial piano got heavier and heavier over the final two laps, Shields fell farther and farther back, until he finally touched the wall in eighth and last-place time of 2:06.65, more than 10 seconds back of the champion. The time was also nearly five seconds out of seventh place.

As a 16-year-old, Shields was almost four seconds faster than the time he delivered at the Pan Am Games, and just last week, he went 1:56.12 in the 200 fly at U.S. Nationals. It makes sense, then, that the race was a major anomaly, or there was an underlying reason for why Shields struggled so mightily. Regardless, the effort did not sit well with the 28-year-old, and he did not internalize that frustration. Instead, he let the world know it.

In no way did Shields owe anyone an apology for his performance. He earned his spot on the Team USA roster for the Pan American Games. He’s the one who put in the time in the pool, enduring training that led him to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and to the 2015 World Championships in Kazan. He’s the one who put in the weightlifting and dryland sessions that complemented his work in the water. But there was Shields on Tuesday night, turning to social media to express his disappointment and to apologize.

How an individual handles adversity reveals a lot about someone’s character. Some possess the woe-is-me attitude in which excuses are made for troubling situations. Some take a why-me approach, in which they wonder if there is an uncontrollable force that has it out for them. Then there’s the I’m-fighting-back mentality, in which someone takes their adversity and either battles through it or uses it as motivation.

Guess which direction Tom Shields traveled.

There was no day off for Shields following his showing in the 200 fly. He was right back on the blocks the next morning for the preliminaries of the 100 butterfly. Perhaps this was a more beneficial scenario. No time to dwell on the previous night. Instead, get out the eraser and move on, which is what Shields did. He wasn’t spectacular in the prelims of what is his prime event, as he qualified fifth for the evening final.

But when it came time to race for the medals in that 100 fly, redemption found its way to Shields. No, strike that. Shields found redemption. Fifth at the turn, Shields seemed headed for another disappointing performance. Then he unleashed a 27.27 split down the last lap, enabling him to move past the field and overhaul Guatemala’s Luis Martinez for the gold, Shields touching in 51.59, .04 ahead of Martinez. The closing lap produced by Shields was bettered by only two of the eight finalists at the recent World Championships.

“It was a good swim,” Shields said. “Obviously, I don’t think any of us would be happy with that time, but given the circumstances, I’m happy to get my hand on the wall against a good group of guys.”

Shields is right. Going 51-mid is not going to grab significant attention. It’s also not going to be enough to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Yet, that’s not what Shields’ last individual race in Peru was about. It was a chance to bounce back from the 200 fly, to show some fortitude and to build momentum heading into the Olympic campaign. That goal was accomplished, and Shields was able to do so with plenty of support.

After turning to Twitter with his 200 butterfly lament, Shields received words of encouragement from both his teammates and fans. From Rowdy Gaines, the three-time Olympic gold medalist and now voice of the sport, Shields heard this: “You have nothing to be ashamed about. Hold your head high my friend.” Shields also benefited from the words of one of the world’s best in the individual medley.

“I thought I was going to get last like last night,” Shields said. “I’m not feeling very good here. I don’t know what’s going on. Las night I died (in the 200 fly) and a couple cool teammates reached out. Especially Chase Kalisz, who kind of talked to me right before the final and set my mind right, and I was able to get my hand on the wall.”


Shields still has some relay duty ahead at the Pan American Games. He’ll then return to California and begin the trek toward Omaha and next summer’s Olympic Trials. To earn a berth to Tokyo, he’ll have to navigate a daunting gauntlet of flyers with similar aspirations. If nothing else, Shields will be resilient and prepared for the challenge ahead of him.

Peru provided that proof.


  1. avatar
    John M Razi

    great stuff ! thank you !

  2. avatar

    Thanks for this article!