Photo Courtesy: adidas swim
By David Rieder.
At only 18 years old, Kyle Chalmers had made his first Olympic Games and his first Olympic final in the 100 free. The 6-foot-4-inch teenage dynamo had overachieved to qualify second-fastest in the event, but he was clearly still Australia’s No. 2 sprinter.
If an Australian was going to win gold (and snap a 60-year stretch of national futility in the event), it would surely be 22-year-old Cameron McEvoy, three inches shorter than Chalmers but a technician in the pool if there ever was one. At Australia’s Olympic Trials four months earlier, McEvoy had beaten Chalmers by more than a second and become the third-fastest man in history in the event.
Of course, funny things happen in swimming, and with five meters to go in the Olympic final, a yellow cap broke away from the field—and it belonged to Chalmers, not McEvoy.
Sure, swimming fanatics knew about Chalmers beforehand, but millions more learned his name that night. Chalmers, who had never expected he would become an Olympic gold medalist, was now on top of the world.
“My goal was to become an Olympian. And once I did that, I worked as hard as I could to swim well at the Olympics. I didn’t want to be one of those athletes that goes over there and doesn’t perform better than I did at Trials,” Chalmers said. “Once I made the final, I knew that I could just enjoy myself and have some fun with the race.”
The magnitude of his accomplishment hit Chalmers when he arrived back home and he saw just how much his historic win—one of only two individual golds in swimming for his country in Rio—meant to Australia.
Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
A massive reception waited him when he landed in Sydney and then when he arrived in his hometown of Adelaide.
“The crowd there was unbelievable,” Chalmers said. “I had no idea. I guess that was probably the most nervous moment of the whole experience—walking up the staircase, and there’s this huge crowd, media everywhere.”
For the next several months, Chalmers was the golden boy, and media and sponsorship requests poured in. Chalmers explained that his fitness probably suffered as he fulfilled all those commitments, but compared to what else he was dealing with, fitness quickly became a secondary concern.
If Chalmers wanted to continue his career as an elite swimmer, he needed to do something about his heart.
What He Was Dealing With
His whole life, Chalmers had dealt with a condition called supraventricular tachycardia, where electrical pulses in his heart were routed through an extra circuit. That caused him to have an irregular heartbeat that could spike as high as 200 beats per minute.
The heart palpitations came and went. During the pre-Olympic season, Chalmers only remembers having one episode, but in the months after the Olympics, they became more frequent. In November, during Australia’s trials for the Short Course World Championships, Chalmers felt a palpitation coming on, so he had to pull out of the 100 free final.
Photo Courtesy: adidas swim
He had every intention of swimming at Short Course Worlds in Windsor, but as soon as his heart rate spiked, that was out of the question. “You feel like blacking out because your heart rate is so high,” he explained.
He dealt with another palpitation at the New South Wales Championships in early 2017, but this time he chose to race through the 50 free final. He got through his country’s World Championship Trials without major incident, finishing second in both the 100 and 200 free—even if his times (48.20 and 1:46.87) were not overly impressive.
But as even getting through a training session became more and more of a struggle, Chalmers realized that he had to do something about his condition. That meant surgery.
“Me, my coaches, Swimming Australia, we all sat down,” Chalmers said. “The best time to have the surgery done was now.”
The procedure would involve doctors cutting through Chalmers’ groin to burn off the extra circuit in his heart. The surgery was carried a small risk that he might end up with a pacemaker if the wrong circuit was burned, but if successful, there would be virtually no chance of his condition returning.
The surgery also meant Chalmers would miss key time in training just weeks before World Championships. So he pulled out.
Why not wait it out and try to get through Worlds before having surgery? Because the Commonwealth Games, scheduled for next April on the Gold Coast of Australia—on “home soil,” Chalmers pointed out—mattered more.
The Comeback Begins
In late July, even though he was not competing at Worlds, Chalmers traveled to Budapest anyway. The surgery had been a complete success, and the now-19-year-old was fully healthy. He had resumed swimming post-operation and had even already swum in one low-key meet in Australia before departing.
He was in the stands watching as 20-year-old American Caeleb Dressel took over the mantle as the best 100 freestyler in the world. Dressel’s stunning time of 47.17 was more than four tenths quicker than Chalmers had swum to win Olympic gold in Rio.
Caeleb Dressel — Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA
“My coach kind of sat me down before I came over here saying what to expect. He said, you know, ‘I don’t think there will be anyone around what you went last year,’” Chalmers said. “But to see Caeleb progress even more than what he was last year already was amazing.”
As he returns to elite-level racing over the next year and in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Chalmers would love to challenge Dressel and to defend his gold medal, but his primary source of motivation will come from someplace else—not medals, not times.
Weeks after his surgery, Chalmers’ grandmother passed away after an 18-month battle with leukemia. The two were extremely close.
Before she died, his grandmother had already booked tickets to watch Chalmers swim at the Commonwealth Games. All she wanted was to stay alive long enough so that she could get to that meet.
“She had the chaplain in there talking to her, and she said, ‘I wish you guys could prolong my life to the Commonwealth Games because all I want to do is see my grandson swim,’” Chalmers recalled. “So I guess that’s the thing that’s internally motivating me, to swim for her and do it for her.”
“I needed that, in a way, some sort of drive,” Chalmers added. “I’m not against times, someone who sets goals to achieve. I just want to be the best athlete I can be and have that legacy as a swimmer.”
Chalmers looks and speaks like a man in his mid-20s, but he is still just a teenager—and that’s why he thinks that he has much room to improve in the pool over the next several years, even after his setbacks this year.
“I don’t know if you’ve watched my swimming, but I’ve probably got the worst technique out of anyone,” Chalmers said. “I swim like a water polo player. If you watch me come out of my streamline, my first breath is looking forward. There’s so much stuff that I can work on over the next three years to better myself as a swimmer.”
Chalmers correctly pointed out that success brings attention, and right now, in the 100 free, the man getting all the attention—and deservedly so—is Dressel. But it was just 12 months ago that Chalmers was in that position, the darling of the sprint world as the youngest Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free in 36 years.
Now, Chalmers is the underdog. His health issues behind him—and his grandmother’s memory fresh in his mind—he begins the climb back.
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