TOKYO — The first Summer Olympics without Michael Phelps in 25 years sped into a full gear on Saturday without an American medal. On Sunday morning, fittingly, a Phelps protégé got Team USA on the board.
And he didn’t just win any medal. Chase Kalisz won gold.
Kalisz, who grew up nine years behind Phelps and 45 minutes away from him in Maryland, won the men’s 400-meter individual medley, the first swimming final, here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center. Fellow American Jay Litherland took the silver. The two close friends paraded around the pool deck arm-in-arm, saluting a section of cheering American teammates and officials.
And Phelps, calling the race for NBC some 50 yards away, raised his arms into the air, and pumped a right fist.
"My heart is about to pop out of my chest," Phelps said on the broadcast. "I'm so stoked right now."
Kalisz, 27, pulled away from a competitive pack on a decisive breaststroke leg, the third of four. He turned a dead heat into a full-body-length lead. He led by 2.47 seconds as he flipped to attack the final 100. His freestyle brought him home in 4:09.42, 0.86 seconds ahead of Litherland, who edged Australia's Brendon Smith for second.
"Way to go kid," Phelps exclaimed for the press tribune up above. "Attaboy."
Kalisz first met Phelps when he was 6 years old. They began training together when the former was a teen and the latter was already an Olympic gold medalist. Phelps broke the 400 IM world record in 2008, then later in his career shifted his focus away from swimming’s most grueling race.
Kalisz eventually stepped into his place, not as an Olympic legend, and not anywhere near Phelps’ world record (4:03.84) that still stands, but as the top American in the event. He took silver in Rio five years ago with a then-personal best swim, nearly chasing down Japan’s Kosuke Hagino for gold. A year later at world championships, he went 4:05.90, the third-fastest 400 IM time ever.
He had accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish in the sport, except for the specific subject of his dreams, Olympic gold. And as Tokyo approached, adversity appeared. A painful, frustrating shoulder injury slowed him in 2018 and 2019. Every stroke came accompanied by a worrying click. It hindered him mentally, and left him short of the final at 2019 worlds, and made the road to 2020 uphill.
"I definitely have a lot more pain in that race than I'm used to," Kalisz said.
But at U.S. Olympic trials, and then again this weekend, he conquered it.
Along the way, he had Phelps in his corner, helping him with race strategy, giving him the occasional kick in the butt when necessary. “Michael really has been like an older brother figure to me in my life since a very, very young age,” Kalisz said at trials.
"He was a little brother to me and still is," Phelps said Sunday. "I love him to death."
That's why Phelps celebrated, and why he pulled out his phone snap a picture, in full Proud Dad mode. Kalisz, down below, clutched his gold medal tight with two hands. He closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. He thought about 2016, about how he'd given everything and come up short, about how he felt he'd let his country down, about disappointment.
He opened his eyes, and realized everything had come "full circle," and that it was all real.
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