Chase Kalisz takes over for Michael Phelps as U.S. has strong first day

Chase Kalisz celebrates after winning the gold medal in the men's 400-meter individual medley.
Chase Kalisz celebrates after winning the gold medal in the men’s 400-meter individual medley at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Though Chase Kalisz is nine years younger than Michael Phelps, they have a relationship like brothers.

That’s why the most decorated Olympian of all-time was in the NBC booth at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Sunday wearing a headset to provide color commentary for the broadcast and arms raised in triumph.

His protégé finally had a gold medal.

Kalisz separated himself from the pack midway through the 400-meter individual medley on the way to capturing first U.S. gold in any sport at these Summer Games.


“It’s my lifelong dream,” he said. “It’s what everyone dreams of in the sport.”

Jay Litherland, Kalisz’s training partner in Georgia, finished about eight-tenths of a second behind the winning time of 4 minutes, 9.42 seconds to take silver.

Kalisz, 27, first met Phelps two decades ago. They started training together at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club when Kalisz was 13. The youngster hoarded the older swimmer’s autographs — and eventually developed the all-around traits needed to become in the crucible that is the individual medley.

Phelps, who retired after the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 and still holds the world record in the 400 IM, didn’t go easy on Kalisz over the years, recognizing his potential and wanting to see it realized. Bob Bowman, who coached both swimmers, once described Phelps going “nuclear” on his young counterpart. The advice, the comments, the interactions were often blunt, the way brothers can interact while still knowing each has the other’s best interest at heart.

After Kalisz won the 400 IM at the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., last month, Phelps bolted onto the pool deck and hugged him.

“He will give me a kick in the ass if I need it and sometimes I certain need it,” Kalisz said at the time. “Michael really has been like an older brother figure to me in my life since a very, very young age.”

Kalisz finished second in the 400 IM in Rio, but struggled with a shoulder injury in 2019. It kept him from advancing to the event’s finals at the world championships in Gwangju, South Korea, the same year. He didn’t publicly discuss the injury — or the mental toll it took — until recently.


He is finally healthy and bolstered with a hell-bent determination in a race seen as the most difficult all-around test in the sport.

“A well-raced 400 IM can hurt like no other event” Kalisz said. “I don’t know how much longer I have left. I’m going to make every single one of them hurt as much as I can.”

U.S. swimmer Chase Kalisz celebrates on the podium after winning gold.
U.S. swimmer Chase Kalisz celebrates on the podium after winning gold in the men’s 400-meter individual medley Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

He added: “I will kill myself in that race, regardless of the outcome.”

The favorite in the event, Japan’s three-time world champion Daiya Seto, didn’t qualify for the final after Saturday’s preliminary heats. He blamed the surprising result on misjudging the effort needed during the final freestyle leg.

On Sunday Kalisz appeared in control from the start, briefly taking the lead on the backstroke leg, then assuming control during the third leg with his powerful breaststroke. It became apparent to the athletes, coaches, media and officials scattered around a mostly empty venue because of COVID-19 precautions that the real race was for second place.

Kalisz touched the wall, hopped on a lane line, flexed and shouted, joining a star-studded group of U.S. swimmers who have won the event in six of the last seven Olympics.

The U.S. women's 4X100-meter freestyle relay team celebrates.
The U.S. women’s 4X100-meter freestyle relay team (from left) Simone Manuel, Natalie Hinds, Abbey Weitzeil and Erika Brown celebrate after winning the bronze Sunday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“That was special type of pain,” he said. “That one definitely hurt more than any other. I actually vowed I would make it hurt more than any other and give it my best to accomplish this.”

In other finals Sunday, Emma Weyant, one of 11 teenagers on the U.S. team, took silver in the 400 IM and the Australian women’s 4x100 freestyle relay set a world record in 3:29.69. The most surprising result came from Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui. The 18-year-old won the 400 freestyle as the eighth-place qualifier for the final.

During the medal ceremony for Kalisz, Phelps stood in the NBC booth, photographed the big-screen television showing his protégé clutching a bouquet of sunflowers and a mask in his left hand as the gold medal dangled from his neck.

Finally, the attention swirled around Kalisz instead of Phelps. The legend snapped another picture of the scene and beamed.