RIO DE JANEIRO — Training and racing with Michael Phelps helped Chase Kalisz get to his first Olympic Games.
But it was Kalisz alone who got himself to the Olympic podium.
The 22-year-old University of Georgia Bulldog moved into second place during the breaststroke in the men’s 400-meter individual medley and almost caught Kosuke Hagino from Japan, one of the best freestyle swimmers in the IM.
Hagino won in 4:06.05, with Kalisz coming in second in 4:06.75. Reigning world champion Daiya Seto from Japan rounded out the podium in 4:09.71.
Also swimming in the 400 IM final was Kalisz’s Georgia teammate Jay Litherland, who finished fifth.
Although it was the first time in 20 years that a U.S. swimmer has not won the men’s 400 IM, Kalisz — who won a bronze medal in the 400 IM at 2015 world championships — was happy with an Olympic silver medal.
“I didn’t think about a medal, I didn’t think about a time, I thought about giving 100 percent my honest effort,” he said. “At the end of the day, I look back to that and that was all I could do and all I could hope for. I’m happy with my results right now. One-hundred percent, I left it all in the pool. I don’t think I could have gone any faster. I gave it all I had.”
With an Olympic medal around his neck, Kalisz stepped out from under the shadow of Phelps, whom he has long emulated— and with whom he is rooming in Rio. Phelps won the 400 IM at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, with Ryan Lochte claiming gold in the event in London.
Kalisz said he was only a little upset that he could not continue the winning tradition. But he knew he had given it his all.
Asked if Phelps or Lochte said anything to him before the final, Kalisz said yes. They told him to stay relaxed, swim his own race, and don’t get caught up in what the other swimmers are doing.
Kalisz followed their advice, coming back from a slow butterfly leg. He made his move in the breaststroke, passing Seto. Kalisz looked like he might catch Hagino in the final 50. But the Japanese swimmer held him off.
“[Hagino] was telling me how bad it was hurting [in the final 50], and I was hurting,” said Kalisz. “He just got his hand on the wall first.”
From Rio, Kalisz will return to the University of Georgia for his senior year. Then he plans to try for gold again at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“It might not be the gold medal, but I’m satisfied with this for right now,” he said, holding his silver medal and looking at it as if it were a new toy.
“It’s only going to eventually push me further,” he added. “I’m going to train as hard as I can for the next four years. I can’t wait for the world championships next summer.
Maya DiRado’s Olympic career is just starting. And it’s just about to end.
But what a beginning. The 23-year-old Stanford graduate claimed a silver medal in the women’s 400-meter individual medley.
Katinka Hosszu from Hungary won the 400 IM in 4:26.36, shattering the world record by over two seconds. DiRado swam below world-record pace for over half the race, but eventually fell off it, finishing in 4:31.15. Mireia Belmonte Garcia from Spain rounded out the podium in 4:32.39.
“I knew Katinka was very far ahead, and I could see that when I turned for freestyle, I was ahead of the rest of the field, so I didn’t really worry about her,” said DiRado. “I haven’t seen my splits yet, but it doesn’t really matter because I got a silver medal, and I’m so thrilled with that!”
It was a remarkable performance by an American swimmer who had never really considered competing in an Olympic Games until last summer.
When DiRado graduated from Stanford in 2014, she assumed her swimming career was over. She was hired by McKinsey & Company as a business analyst, and it was time to put swimming behind her.
But as she finished up a couple classes in the fall of 2014, she just kept swimming. By winter 2015, she thought she would try for the 2015 world championships, and McKinsey let her defer employment.
In Kazan, Russia, last summer, DiRado also won a silver medal (finishing behind Hosszu). Stanford Coach Greg Meehan convinced her to try for the 2016 Olympic Games.
When she told her parents, Ruben and Marit DiRado, that she wanted to postpone work and try for Rio, her dad was surprised. But her mom said go for it.
“I was like don’t quit,” said Marit at Olympic Trials in June in Omaha. “But with Maya, you can’t bug her. She had to come to it. That’s why, as Maya says, it’s Greg’s genius. He knew how to get that out of her.”
As DiRado kept improving throughout the past winter, U.S. teammate Elizabeth Beisel knew that “Maya was going to be on the podium.”
“She’s just been getting better and better and better every single meet that we go to,” said Beisel, who won silver in the 400 IM at the London Games. “It’s so cool to see somebody who’s so awesome do well. Maya is somebody that you want to see do well.”
Beisel also qualified for the 400 IM final at the 2016 Olympics tonight, but after struggling with injuries for over a year, she finished a disappointing sixth.
Asked if anyone at McKinsey had contacted her before the 400 IM, DiRado said yes. The company sent out an email blast informing employees that they should watch the women’s 400 IM final.
“I have a lot of good luck messages that warmed my heart,” said DiRado.
Although this is her only Olympic Games, DiRado skipped the Opening Ceremony last night. And she will miss the Closing Ceremony too, choosing instead to vacation with her husband in Paris. Then on Sept. 9, she starts work at McKinsey in Atlanta.
Until then, she has two more individual races to swim — the 200 IM and 200 backstroke. And she has a night of celebration to enjoy.
“Coach Greg just wanted me to go out and have fun and enjoy the moment that we didn’t ever really think was going to happen,” DiRado said. “To be here racing in an Olympic final is amazing in itself. Before the race, I smiled behind the blocks, which I don’t normally go. I was like, I’m swimming in an Olympic final. I was the girl who was videotaping and recording all those sessions [in previous Olympics]. Now I get to be up there. It was so fun.”
The U.S. team rounded out the night with a silver medal in the 4x100 freestyle. Katie Ledecky anchored the team in the final to a silver medal — one place better than the team’s bronze-medal finish at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Australia won for the fourth straight time. Their time of 3:30.65 was a world record.
The U.S. finished second in 3:31.89. Canada was third in 3:32.89.
Simone Manuel led off the relay for Team USA and touched the wall first after her 100. Abbey Weitzeil extended the lead. But then Dana Vollmer couldn’t quite hold on to Australia’s Bronte Campbell.
Ledecky dove in about a half second after Cate Campbell but couldn’t stay with the Australian.
The U.S. women once dominated the 4x100 free, winning 14 gold medals in the 23 times the U.S. has competed in the event (which debuted in 1912). But they haven’t won gold since the 2000 Games, unable to hold off the swift Aussies.
In the only other final on Saturday night, Conor Dwyer just missed the podium in the men’s 400 freestyle. Connor Jaeger finished fifth.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.