Home Sports How Gretchen Walsh, once ‘just a bathtub swimmer,’ became a breakout Olympic star

How Gretchen Walsh, once ‘just a bathtub swimmer,’ became a breakout Olympic star

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INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - JUNE 16: Gretchen Walsh of the United States reacts after winning the Women's 100 Meter Butterfly Championship on day two of the 2024 US Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 16 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Gretchen Walsh reacts after winning the women’s 100 meter butterfly on day two of the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium on June 16, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – A few years before the world record fell, before Gretchen Walsh broke through and announced herself as a future Olympic star, terrifying thoughts danced through her brain and hindered her.

They danced every time Walsh crawled into a pool like the one he conquered on Saturday and Sunday night, when he qualified for Paris 2024 in the 100-meter butterfly.

They danced despite their unlimited athletic potential.

When Walsh dove into 25-yard pools, he glided through the water and entered the record books.

But, on the blocks of any 50-meter pool, you would essentially set yourself up for failure. She had accepted the disappointment before even diving into the water. She said to herself: It’s okay if I don’t make it.

And so, in one long-running meeting after another, he didn’t. She could not. While she was sweeping the NCAA short course competition and ultimately setting and resetting records in three different strokes, she failed to even qualify for the long course world championships in 2022. “She really embraced the idea that she’s just a pool swimmer. and not a long-course (swimmer),” says Christen Shefchunas, Walsh’s “trusted coach.”

That idea, perhaps more than any technical or physical flaw, was the barrier between Walsh and his first Olympic Games. It was the mental wall that separated her from stardom. Over the past two years, she has been scaling it back. And here, at Lucas Oil Stadium, on the first nights of the U.S. Swimming Trials, she walked through it, onto the biggest stage in sports.

Born and raised in Nashville, Walsh first made metaphorical waves in swimming as a preteen with can’t-miss talent. At age 13, he qualified for the 2016 Olympic trials. At age 16, in 2019, he went to the world juniors and took home six gold medals. He did all this in a 50-meter pool and generated an endless stir.

But then, for months and eventually years, he didn’t reach those golden times of age 16.

She missed the 2021 Olympics, finishing fifth in the 50-meter freestyle and 28th in the 100.

And she began to wonder: “What’s wrong with me?”

The answer was, in part, that it dominated underwater sports, which account for 65% of short-course swimming but 30% of long-course swimming; However, he struggled to master any blow.

The other part of the answer, however, became the thought itself.

“She once had a couple of bad swims in long pools and the fear increased,” Shefchunas says, “so she swam scared all the time.”

Walsh’s gift is his speed. “As if she were fast” says Toddy DeSorbo, his coach at the University of Virginia. “And she can get out fast.” But before he could, on the blocks of a long course pool, she would worry about the end of the race, especially the 100 freestyle.

“He wasn’t using (his speed) because he was too afraid of getting tired and dying at the end of the race,” Shefchunas says. Then she would hold back.

What Walsh had to learn, she , was to feel “comfortable being uncomfortable.” He had to take some risks, stop overthinking and accept the pain to come. He had to deconstruct those scary thoughts and replace them with, well, something; anything.

He worked, over the past two years, to replace them with an unwavering focus on racial strategy. He would focus on his first 25 meters or his first six strokes. This, of course, was neither innovative nor novel; but it was, and is, says Walsh, “something I can easily understand in my head.”

And it helped. Last summer, Walsh qualified for the worlds, contributing in relays and winning an individual bronze in the 50 meters. In the fall, his times began to improve steadily.

In November, I was ready to say, “Everyone always says, I’m just a tub swimmer, I can’t do lap pool. But I think I finally proved to myself that I can do both.”

Throughout the 2023-24 college season, he returned his focus to the short course. But deep down, in the daily routine, he also prepared himself for a long-term breakthrough.

“He’s gained a lot of strength this year,” DeSorbo said last month. “She is a significantly stronger person now than she was (in September). And I think that has really helped her butterfly in particular.”

He also “overhauled” his freestyle technique, DeSorbo explained. And they worked on his aerobic threshold, so Walsh could maintain his speed in the last 50 of the 100. The 100 free, which had been his “nemesis race,” Shefchunas says, became one in which he had medal potential. Olympics.

But it was in the 100 butterfly, here at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend, where Walsh broke through.

“We hadn’t really focused on (the butterfly) in the NCAA until this year,” DeSorbo said. This year, however, they were launched and the improvement came quickly. She moved from a short course to a long course and accelerated faster than anyone, including Walsh herself, could have imagined.

He broke the world record on Saturday night in his semi-final. On Sunday, after an emotional night, he swam 0.13 seconds slower, but still below the previous world record, and qualified for his first Olympic Games, where he could go even faster.

Even after breaking the record on Saturday, he said, “I still have room to grow in that race.”

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