American swimming tests: Gretchen Walsh and Torri Huske shine in the 100 butterfly strokes

INDIANAPOLIS – The glory and agony of being an elite swimmer in the United States were on full display Sunday night at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials. When American swimmers talk about the trials being unlike any other in their careers — or about being a tougher and more harrowing competition than even the Olympics — races like the women’s 100-meter butterfly final are the reason.

Gretchen Walsh, Torri Huske and Regan Smith entered the race ranked first, second and third in the world – the only women in the world to be under 56 seconds this season. Put them in the starting blocks at any major international competition and they would be a good bet to take the medals.

But in the cold and unforgiving math that governed Olympic qualifying, only two of them could make the Team USA roster for the Paris Olympics in this event, and the two who reached the final wall first were Walsh and Huske – the finished first (55.31) just shy of the world record time of 55.18 she recorded the night before in the semi-finals, the latter at arm’s length behind (55.52).

“The fact that it took 55 minutes to make the Olympic team in that event this year is absolutely unheard of,” Walsh said, “and I am so excited about America’s success in that event in Paris.”

The unlucky third place was Smith in 55.62, a time that makes her the fifth fastest woman in history at the event. However, that designation offers little consolation: it does not place her in the team on the way to Paris. As Walsh and Huske hugged each other on the pool deck and waved to the crowd, Smith quietly crept through the athletes’ tunnel and out of sight. The 22-year-old will have three more chances at this event – ​​the 200 butterfly and the 100 and 200 backstroke – and will be the clear favorite in all three.

Walsh, 21, is coming off one of the most dominant college seasons in history, crowned with seven gold medals at the NCAA Championships, where she set NCAA records in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 fly and moved Virginia to fourth successive national race. championship. But her brilliant collegiate career, coupled with her failure at the Tokyo Olympics three years ago, led to the perception that she was better suited to the 25-meter pool of NCAA swimming than the 50-meter version of the international competition.

If that reputation doesn’t end Sunday night, it could be by the end of next week, with Walsh still set to swim the 100 free, the 50 free and perhaps the 100 back.

“This whole journey has been full of ups and downs,” she said, “but I’m so happy to be at such a high point now.”

If there’s anyone who understands the brutal, unforgiving nature of the U.S. Olympic Trials, it’s Carson Foster. Three years ago at the 2021 trials, Foster let a lead slip in the final 50 meters of the 400 individual medley and finished third, half a second shy of making the team.

This time he went from wire to wire and no one, not even veteran Chase Kalisz one lane ahead, could pass him. Foster (4:07.64) and Kalisz (4:09.39) earned spots on the Paris roster. Jay Litherland (4:12.34), who beat Foster in 2021 to win silver in Tokyo, was Sunday’s feared third-place finisher.

“It’s come full circle for me,” Foster said.

Walsh and Foster credited the mental performance coaches they started working with after their 2021 disappointments for giving them the tools to move past the heartbreak and get into a position to thrive this summer. They even quantified it in exactly the same way: “It completely changed my career.”

“When I was approached about working with a performance coach a few years ago, I was almost a little offended,” Foster added. “Deep down I knew I needed it, but I thought, ‘I don’t need that’ – just the stigma attached to it. But I can guarantee 100 percent that without this system I would not be here.”

One night after earning a spot on her fourth Olympic team by winning the women’s 400 freestyle, legendary distance swimmer Katie Ledecky was back in the water for the semifinals of the 200 freestyle, a race she has not competed in internationally. dominates for longer and sometimes does not even participate. . But at least in America she remains the one to beat, a point she drove home with a 1:55.25 swim in her semi-final to lead the qualifiers for Monday night’s final.

It remains unclear whether Ledecky plans to swim the individual 200, either in Monday night’s final or in Paris, or if she only plans to use her time here to earn a spot on the 800 freestyle relay at the secure the Olympic Games.

That final will be one of five contested on an action-packed schedule on Monday evening. Including relay spots could earn as many as 18 spots on Team USA’s roster for Paris — although due to roster restrictions, some spots, especially for the relays, won’t be made official until the end of the race.

As wonderful as it is to watch a swimmer become an Olympian, the other side of the equation is equally crushing: five finals means five third places, the part of the Olympic trials that claims more victims every night.