As Chase Kalisz churned through the final leg of the 400-meter individual medley Saturday during the first day of the swimming competition at the Olympics, pain radiated through every inch of his 6-foot-4 frame.
The roar from thousands of fans at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium grew deafening as the 22-year-old tried to close the gap with Japan’s Kosuke Hagino in the last 50 meters. The lone thought in Kalisz’s mind was the relief that touching the wall would bring. But the furious rally by Michael Phelps’ training partner and protege fell short.
Hagino finished in 4 minutes, 6.05 seconds to win gold, seven-tenths of a second ahead of the second-place Kalisz.
Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, and Ryan Lochte had combined to win the last three Olympic titles in the event that might be the sport’s toughest test. Kalisz wanted to continue the U.S. dominance. He swam the fastest time of his career by a second and a half. It wasn’t enough.
“I’m a little upset I didn’t get to continue our tradition,” Kalisz said. “But I was at peace with myself and the race.”
He grew up idolizing Phelps. They both competed for the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. Kalisz even hoarded the star’s autographs.
Though separated by nine years, they have a relationship like brothers. Phelps is tough on Kalisz. Their coach, Bob Bowman, once referred to Phelps going “nuclear” on Kalisz. They don’t hold back. The veteran wants to see the youngster’s potential realized.
Phelps told Kalisz to approach his first Games like an ordinary meet. Never mind the soldiers toting assault rifles outside the temporary stadium or the scores of photographers seated next to the pool to freeze every moment.
“This has been a dream of mine,” Kalisz said. “I really took it all in. I think it’s a good stepping stone to where I want to be eventually.”
He was in fourth place after the first leg of butterfly, but pulled into second place on the breaststroke leg. That set up the furious freestyle swim to the finish. That’s not the best stroke for Kalisz. It is one of Hagino’s specialties.
The swimmers were still more than three seconds off the world record Phelps set at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
“I couldn’t compare with him, but I enjoyed swimming this event,” Hagino said.
On the women’s side, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu obliterated the world record in the 400 IM while winning the gold medal. The former USC star nicknamed the “Iron Lady” finished in 4:26.36 -- almost five seconds ahead of second-place Maya DiRado.
Hosszu broke the record of 4:28.43 China’s Ye Shiwen set at the London Olympics in 2012.
“It’s just crazy that I’ve been able to swim two seconds faster than anyone ever, ever did,” she said. “It’s just crazy.”
The U.S. women’s 400-meter freestyle relay added a silver medal, too. They held the lead over Australia’s powerful four-woman team after the first two legs. But Bronte Campbell pulled ahead of Dana Vollmer on the third leg. And Campbell’s sister Cate did the rest.
Last month Cate Campbell broke the world record in the 100-meter freestyle. She flashed the same race-breaking speed going against U.S. anchor Katie Ledecky.
While Ledecky has dominated the middle distances, she placed seventh in the 100 freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials. She wasn’t a traditional choice to swim the final 100 meters. But she delivered a blazing leg during the preliminaries Saturday and earned the spot in the final. But she couldn’t swim past Campbell.
In the other final, Conor Dwyer faded to fourth place in the 400-meter freestyle after recording the fastest preliminary time.
Not long after that race ended, Kalisz fingered his silver medal in a long, stuffy hallway.
“It might not be the gold medal,” he said, “but I’m satisfied with this one.”
The pain gone, Kalisz started talking about resuming training, about what was next.