How Gretchen Walsh, once ‘just a bathtub swimmer,’ became a breakout Olympic star

INDIANAPOLIS — A few short years before the world record fell, before Gretchen Walsh broke through and announced herself as an Olympic star-to-be, scary thoughts would dance through her brain and hinder her.

They danced every time Walsh crept toward a pool like the one she conquered Saturday and Sunday night, when she qualified for Paris 2024 in the 100-meter butterfly.

They danced despite limitless athletic potential.

When Walsh dove into 25-yard pools, she’d slither through water and into record books.

But, on the blocks of any 50-meter pool, she’d essentially prepare to fail. She’d come to terms with disappointment before she even dipped into water. She’d tell herself: It's OK if I don't succeed.

And so, at long-course meet after long-course meet, she didn’t. She couldn’t. As she tore through short-course NCAA competition, eventually setting and re-setting records in three different strokes, she fell short of even qualifying for the 2022 long-course world championships. “She really bought into the idea that she's just a short-course swimmer, and not a long-course [swimmer],” says Christen Shefchunas, Walsh’s “confidence coach.”

That idea, perhaps more than any technical or physical shortcoming, was the barrier between Walsh and her first Olympics. It was the mental wall that separated her from superstardom. Over the past two years, she chipped away at it. And here at Lucas Oil Stadium, on the opening nights of U.S. Olympic swimming trials, she smashed through it, toward the biggest stage in sports.

Walsh, born and raised in Nashville, first made metaphorical waves in swimming as a preteen with unmissable talent. At age 13, she qualified for 2016 Olympic trials. At age 16, in 2019, she went to junior worlds and brought home six gold medals. She did all of that in a 50-meter pool, and spawned boundless hype.

Then, for months, and eventually for years, she fell short of those golden 16-year-old times.

She missed the 2021 Olympics, finishing fifth in the 50-meter freestyle, and 28th in the 100 at U.S. trials.

And she began to wonder: “What's wrong with me?”

The answer was, in part, that she’d mastered underwaters, which are 60% of short-course swimming but 30% of long-course; her long, 6-foot-1, flexible body is perfect for them. Yet she'd struggled to master any stroke.

The other part of the answer, though, became the thought itself.

“Once she had a couple of bad swims long-course, and that fear built up,” Shefchunas says, “then she was just swimming scared all the time.”

Walsh’s gift is her speed. “Like, she is fast,” says Todd DeSorbo, her coach at the University of Virginia. “And she can get out fast.” But before she could, on the blocks of a long-course pool, she’d worry about the back end of the race, especially in the 100 free.

“She wasn't using [her speed], because she was so afraid of getting tired and dying by the end of her race,” Shefchunas says. So she’d hold back.

What Walsh had to learn, she said last year, was to get “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” She had to take some risks, and quit overthinking, and accept forthcoming pain. She had to deconstruct those scary thoughts, and replace them with, well, something; anything.

She worked, over the past two years, to replace them with an unflinching focus on race strategy. She’d concentrate on her first 25 meters, or her first six strokes. This, of course, was not groundbreaking or novel; but it was, and is, Walsh says, “something I can easily comprehend in my head.”

And it helped. Last summer, Walsh qualified for worlds, contributed to relays, and won an individual bronze in the 50. In the fall, her times began to steadily improve.

By November, she was ready to say: “Everyone always says, like, I’m just a bathtub swimmer, can’t do the long-course pool. But I think I finally proved to myself that I can do both.”

Throughout the 2023-24 collegiate season, she flipped her focus back to short-course. In the span of a month to close the season, she lowered four of her own NCAA records, and led Virginia to a national championship. But in the background, on the daily grind, she also readied for a long-course breakthrough.

“She's gained a ton of strength this year,” DeSorbo said last month. “She's a significantly stronger individual now than she was [in September]. And I think that has really helped her butterfly in particular.”

She also “overhauled” her freestyle technique, she and DeSorbo explained. She added length and power to each stroke. She worked on her aerobic threshold, too, so that she could maintain her speed on the back 50 of a 100. The 100 free, which had previously been her “nemesis race,” Shefchunas says, became one in which she had Olympic medal potential. She'll attempt to qualify in the 100 and 50 free this upcoming week.

But it was in the 100 butterfly, here at Lucas Oil Stadium this weekend, that Walsh broke through.

“We really hadn't focused on [butterfly] in the NCAA at all until this year,” DeSorbo said. This year, though, they dove in, and improvement came rapidly. It translated from short course to long course, and accelerated quicker than anyone — including Walsh herself — could’ve imagined.

She smashed the world record Saturday with a 55.18 in her semifinal. The following day, after a short night of adrenaline-hindered sleep, nerves and doubts and what-ifs returned. Walsh knew she'd have to go at least mid-55 again to finish top-two and make the team.

So she hopped on a 1 p.m. call with Shefchunas. They re-centered her mind around one of their mantras: "just execute — no more, no less." Seven hours later, after an afternoon nap, she won the final in 55.31, the second-fastest time ever.

As she descended from the pool deck, she first sought out her sister, Alex, a 2021 Olympian; and then DeSorbo, who she saw tearing up for the very first time. They both embraced. Gretchen beamed.

Now, she'll turn her attention to Paris, where she'll be the sudden favorite in the 100 fly (at least).

And on that note, after her record-setting swim Saturday night, she offered a new type of scary thought: “I still have room to grow in that race.”