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Chase Kalisz Overcomes Rare Disease, Rio Disappointment to Win First Gold

By Karen Rosen | July 28, 2017, 10:10 a.m. (ET)

Chase Kalisz celebrates winning the gold medal in the men's 200-meter medley at the Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships on July 27, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary.


BUDAPEST, Hungary – Chase Kalisz is driven by two life-altering events.

One is still fresh on his mind. The other happened when he was a child so his memories aren’t as vivid, but he carries it with him always.

Going into the Olympic Games Rio 2016, Team USA had a five-Games winning streak in the men’s 400-meter individual medley dating back to 1996. Tom Dolan won two in a row, followed by Michael Phelps with two and Ryan Lochte with one.

Kalisz lost the race. His silver ended the streak.

“I’ll never forget that final 5 meters when I knew I didn’t have enough or what it took to get it done,” he said, “and everything I do every single day, that final 5 meters replays in my head. It haunts me and I was lucky enough to turn it into motivation.”

On Thursday night at the FINA World Championships, Kalisz won the 200 IM, churning toward the wall for his first gold medal in a major competition.

The 23-year-old swam those final 5 meters in triumph.

Kalisz also knows how it feels to not be able to move 5 meters -- or hardly at all.

He was 8 years old when he contracted Guillain-Barre syndrome, which is an acute disorder of the nervous system. One day Kalisz was running a 5K race, the next night he could barely move his arms and legs and had to crawl down the hallway to alert his mom and dad.

“From when I first started noticing something was wrong, I was in a hospital bed probably a day later,” Kalisz said.

He was in a drug-induced coma for about a week and on a ventilator and feeding tube for eight months. Kalisz then endured three months in a rehabilitation hospital.

“That’s a long time ago, but I definitely don’t forget about it,” he said.

Swimming gave him a path to return to normal.

“I was swimming before and swimming was the first thing I was able to do,” Kalisz said. “They put me in a float tank. That was my first exercise I was able to do.

“That was kind of like my first sign of hope. I knew at the end of the week if did well in my rehabilitation stuff, I got to go in the tank and swim around.”

He also was getting letters from his heroes while he was in the hospital. 

Michael Phelps sent him goggles and caps and signed items. “That meant the world to me,” said Kalisz.

They were already acquainted.

“He knew me,” Kalisz said, “as an annoying kid that asked him for autographs every opportunity I could when I was probably 6.”

Kalisz grew up in Bel Air, Maryland, close to “the Baltimore Bullet,” and his family eventually joined the North Baltimore Aquatic Club where Phelps trained. 

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After about a year, Kalisz had made great strides in his recovery, but he said, “It took probably about two or three more years until I was back to where I was before. Who knows if I’m still dealing with stuff like that or it affects me somehow today? But I don’t really like to think about that.”

He just puts his head down in practice and goes to work.

On Kalisz’s first day home from the rehab hospital, Rowdy Gaines called him. The NBC analyst and 1984 triple Olympic gold medalist wasn’t calling Kalisz as a celebrity. He had been there. Gaines contracted Guillain-Barre in 1991, when he was 32 years old.

Kalisz reminded him of that conversation in 2015, and they talked about it again at a meet earlier this year.

Gaines said that because Kalisz contracted the rare disease when he was young, his body had a better chance of healing itself.

“He’s such an incredibly hard worker and such a brave young man,” Gaines said. 

He said they share the disease as well as their Olympic brotherhood.

“We have this bond,” said Gaines, who noted that his fingers and toes still have a tingling feeling.

Gaines is in Budapest to call races for NBC, including the 200 IM and the 400 IM, in which he is the favorite on Sunday.

“He’s that go-to American right now,” Gaines said. “Last summer, he was very gracious, but he was also disappointed he didn’t win. He won the silver, but he wasn’t satisfied and I think that drove him to get to this point to where he’s going to have a great meet.”

Kalisz became the first champion in the 200 IM not named Phelps or Lochte since 2001. Phelps won in 2003, 2005 and 2007 and Lochte took over in 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015. Team USA has medaled in 16 of the 17 world championships, falling short only in 1986 in Madrid.

Kalisz said it was important to him to keep the Team USA streak going. 

“It was definitely in my head,” he said. “No one wants to be the one to ruin that. It happened to me last summer, not to continue the tradition of winning the 400 IM in the Olympics.”

With Phelps retired – or at least that’s what he says currently – and Lochte ineligible to compete at the U.S. nationals while under suspension, Kalisz won his first national title in the 200 IM. He also won the 400 IM.

“They’re the centerpiece of IM in our sport,” Kalisz said. “No one’s going to replace those two, but to be able to continue and represent the U.S. and be on top of the podium in that event, that’s cool to me, because those two are my idols.”

Kalisz never imagined his first gold would come in the 200 IM. He had not swum the shorter event at worlds or the Olympic Games.

“This is kind of a shock for me,” he said of his victory. “Even going into our world trials, I didn’t think I was in a position where I was confident I could make the team. I dropped over 3 seconds from my time from four months ago. I came into worlds and I felt like I was a long shot to even medal.”

While there are only heats and finals in the 400 IM, the 200 IM has an extra semifinal round. Kalisz drew on his experience watching Phelps. 

“I’ve been lucky to be around Michael my whole life and seeing how he handled it,” said Kalisz, who started training in Phelps’ group when he was in high school. “I did my best job of keeping my composure and imitating how he’s always done it. And I think that was a big bonus for me and helped me get to where I was.”

After he swam a PR of 1 minute, 55.88 seconds in the semis to lead all qualifiers, Kalisz shifted his mindset. He said to himself, “I think I have a little more left.”

In the final, Kalisz posted a personal best of 1:55.56 – nearly a second better than his time at nationals of 1:56.51. 

He defeated Kosuke Hagino of Japan, who touched at 1:56.01, while Wang Shun of China took third (1:56.28).

“It’s a lot more fun than the 400 IM,” Kalisz said. “I felt a lot better climbing out of the water instead of crawling out.”

Hagino was the man who beat Kalisz in Rio, but Kalisz said the aim was the gold medal, not revenge.

“He’s an awesome competitor and I’ve been lucky enough to race him,” Kalisz said. “He’s one of the most gracious and humble competitors out there, we’ll be preparing for that race and me, him and (Japanese swimmer Daiya) Seto will be warming up in the same lane – smiling, so I’m not out there to go beat him. I’m out there to swim my best. He pushes me and I think I push him. We have a great rivalry.”

They’ll meet again in the 400 IM. Kalisz has never won the gold in the 400 IM. He won the silver in 2013 and the bronze in 2015.

“I think I’m definitely better in the 400 IM and that’s what I train for,” Kalisz said. “I’m certainly happy with (the 200 IM) and I’ll definitely take it. It bodes well for my future in the 400 IM -- and the 200 IM.”

He was in fifth place after the butterfly, then moved up to third in the backstroke. Kalisz made his move on the breaststroke leg, touching the wall at 1:27.09, a lead of .74. His breaststroke split was faster than any other swimmer’s time, and Kalisz said he might experiment with adding individual breaststroke events in the next three years going into the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

He’s looking forward to two days off before the 400 IM, when he hopes to return to the top step of the podium and hear a familiar song.

“I’d never heard my own national anthem,” Kalisz said. “That’s why I do it. Representing my country is the ultimate meaning of all of this above anything else.”

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Chase Kalisz