In 2004 and 2008, the Olympic gold medal in the men’s 400-meter individual medley went to Michael Phelps.
Something strange happened in 2012, however, as Phelps finished fourth in the event. It was the first time since he was 15 and swimming in just a single event at the 2000 Sydney Olympics that he failed to medal in an event in which he competed. It was the only event in 2012 in which he competed and failed to medal.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the 400IM gold medal will be up for grabs, with the hope that it can return to Maryland. It just won’t be Phelps who captures the gold.
For the first time in his career, 22-year-old Fallston High School (Harford County) graduate Chase Kalisz will be swimming in this year’s Olympics. At the recent U.S. Olympic swim trials in Omaha, Neb., he won the 400IM, and waiting to greet him after the race was his friend, and now Olympic teammate, Phelps.
“That was awesome,” Kalisz said July 8 on Glenn Clark Radio. “That was one of the coolest moments. I was walking on the pool deck — they’re supposed to check your badges and stuff out on the pool deck, so no one’s allowed. So Michael used his ‘greatest swimmer of all time’ power, and he found his way out on the pool deck, and that was so cool, seeing him and giving him a big hug. He told me how proud he was of me. That was really cool. I’m really glad that he was one of the first people that I got to see after.”
Kalisz, like every other swimmer to come from the powerful North Baltimore Aquatic Club during the last two decades, has largely swam in the shadow of the most decorated Olympic champion of all time. While that could potentially consume some athletes, Kalisz has embraced the fruitfulness of the relationship.
“I don’t think anyone is ever going to be able to be compared to Michael,” the current University of Georgia swimmer said. “I knew that from the beginning. My whole swim career with him, I just wanted to be like him. I wanted to do the things that he’s doing. I knew I’d never be on his level. He’s been like an older brother to me. That’s how our relationship is. If he needs to be hard on me in practice, he will. Ninety-nine percent of the time we’re good friends. It’s a good relationship, and it’s been very meaningful to have his guidance. He knows the sport better than anyone else, so I’ve definitely been very fortunate in that aspect.”
There was a time in Kalisz’s life where none of this would have seemed possible. As a child, he battled an illness that left him semi-paralyzed.
“I had Guillain-Barre, which is a pretty rare sickness, when I was 8 years old,” Kalisz said. “Basically, I was in an induced coma for about two weeks. I was on a ventilator and feeding tube for months, and all I could do was blink.”
While perhaps others wonder how things could have been different, the Harford County native doesn’t dwell on the past.
“It was so long ago, and I was so young, that I never really [let it overwhelm me],” Kalisz said. “I was young. You always thought for the best. You just [have] a childish attitude when you’re younger — you always think everything’s going to be turning out all right. When I was younger, that’s what I thought. I thought it was just going to be a temporary thing. And I think that’s what I had to my advantage than if, say, that happened to me now. So I don’t really think of the ‘what ifs’ or anything. I think that I’ve had a good path forward ever since that happened.”
Kalisz’s path now moves forward to Brazil and his first trip to the Olympics. Swimming in front of a worldwide audience for the first time could intimidate some athletes, but he falls back on previous national team experience.
“I feel like I’m very prepared,” Kalisz said. “I’ve been in stadiums with 20,000 people watching me and screaming before. I don’t think I’m really too nervous for that aspect. It’s [the] kind of stuff that I’ve done over the last four years.”
Before he gets there, he’ll still have to settle into the reality that he’s actually an Olympian. That’s a feeling Kalisz hasn’t fully been able to grasp just yet — despite training with Phelps, fellow former NBAC Olympian Allison Schmitt and others under the tutelage of former NBAC coach and now Olympic head coach Bob Bowman in Arizona.
“It’s kind of still a weird feeling to me,” Kalisz said. “I think the first time it kind of hit me, or I guess I realized it, was [when] we were sitting at breakfast, the whole group [July 7], and Michael mentioned we had five Olympians. I like looked around, and then I looked at Michael, and I was like, ‘wait, what?’
“I still don’t really think of it on a daily basis as, ‘I’m an Olympian now.’ Once I probably step up on the box at the Olympics it will probably be more real for me.”
For more from Kalisz, listen to the full interview here: