Thomas Heilman, Max Williamson and Kaii Winkler? American Teenage Stars Chasing Olympic Breakthrough

Thomas Heilman -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Heilman, Williamson and Winkler? American Teenage Stars Chasing Olympic Breakthrough

The last time a male swimmer younger than college-age qualified to represent the United States in the Olympics, the average price of one gallon of gasoline was $1.46, and Bill Clinton was still President. At the 2000 Olympic Trials, four young men all earned their spots at the Sydney Games. Michael Phelps, 15, made the first of his five Olympic teams as the runnerup in the 200 butterfly while 17-year-old Aaron Peirsol took second in the 200 backstroke, 17-year-old Ian Crocker won the 100 fly and 18-year-old Klete Keller won the 400 free.

Since then, several male teenagers have booked tickets to represent the U.S. on the highest level. Phelps and Larsen Jensen were teenagers on the 2004 team while 19-year-old Nathan Adrian was a rookie on the 2008 team. No teenagers qualified for the London Games, but 19-year-olds Caeleb Dressel and Townley Haas both played key roles four years later in Rio. Jake Mitchell was the only male teenager on the Tokyo team in 2021. All impressive young swimmers, but all were more than a year past their high-school graduation date

Next year, twenty-four years (and four Presidents) after the last pre-college-age swimmer qualified for the Olympics, that drought could be snapped, with several elite talents poised to make the jump. Two proved their potential with their international performances this summer while a third was denied a chance at international racing in 2023 due to injury, only to pick up where he left off this fall.

The most likely pre-college male swimmer to reach Paris is Thomas Heilman, who saw his career take off this summer as he got onto the World Championships team as the U.S. Nationals runnerup in both butterfly events. He broke the 15-16 National Age Group record in the 200 fly that Phelps set in a world-title-winning effort in 2001 as he tied for fourth in the World Championships final. Heilman’s best time of 1:53.82 ranks him fourth all-time among Americans, and he sits only three hundredths away from the world junior record (with two more years to try to break it).

Additionally, Heilman already owns a senior-level international gold by virtue of his prelims fly leg on the U.S. men’s 400 medley relay. Following massive improvements in 2023, his chances for next year’s even more prestigious stage seem promising.


Maximus Williamson — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

It’s a similar story for Maximus Williamson, a future teammate of Heilman’s at the University of Virginia. Williamson was already considered a top prospect even before he broke out at the World Junior Championships in September, storming to gold in the 100 free and 200 IM while leading the Americans to four relay gold medals and one silver.

In one year, Williamson dropped 1.76 seconds from his 100 free best time to get down to 48.38, and he split as fast as 47.57 in relay action. His 200 IM time of 1:57.29 ranked third among Americans this year. Sure, he’s not necessarily favored to qualify for the Olympics, at least not to the extent of a senior-level World Championships finalist like Heilman, but his chances are clear, particularly with six swimmers likely to qualify as part of the U.S. men’s 400 free relay in Paris.

The third candidate to make this jump before beginning his college career has flown a bit under the radar, but maybe not anymore after Kaii Winkler broke two national high school records at this weekend’s Florida 1A High School State Championships. Winkler, who missed out on U.S. Nationals and other long course championship meets after a wrist fracture in June, swam times of 1:32.68 and 42.14 in the 100 free. Like Williamson, his best chance at an Olympic spot will also come in the 100 free. In March, he set the 15-16 National Age Group record in the long course version of the event at 48.81, faster than either Williamson or Heilman at that age.


Kaii Winkler — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

The men’s 100 free could be one of the most daunting events of the Olympic Trials after five men swam under 48 this year and a total of 11 swimmers matched or surpassed Williamson’s best of 48.38 (and that list does not include Dressel). Tied with Williamson is Arizona State sophomore Jonny Kulow, who split 47.32 and 47.39 on relays at the recent Pan American Games. Kulow, 19, is also considered a rising name to watch in the event, and he’s at the age when male sprinters typically break out. He will hope not to be lost in the mix of even younger sprinters coming up simultaneously.

Daniel Diehl could also find his way into the mix at next year’s Trials. Previously best known for his sprint backstroke abilities, Diehl showed off a wide array of talents at the World Junior Championships as he claimed silver medals in the 200 back and 200 IM plus three relay gold medals, most impressive of which was his 1:46.61 anchor split on the 800 free relay. If he can find some additional strength and speed over the next seven months, as 17 and 18-year-old men often do, Diehl could also find his way into the conversation at Trials.

With so many candidates in the mix, expect at least one and very possibly more male swimmers awaiting their college matriculation to earn their spots on the Olympic team. Thanks to his World Championships results, Heilman is the clear headliner, but he will be accompanied on pool deck at Lucas Oil Stadium next June by other generational talents. Regardless of whether they qualify for the Olympic team this time around, all of these young men look like core contributors into the future.

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5 months ago

Fun the think about.

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