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Gretchen Walsh eyes first Olympics after historic NCAA Swimming Championships

Gretchen Walsh just completed one of the best NCAA swimming seasons in history, which could help propel her to a first Olympic team this summer.

Walsh, a University of Virginia junior, broke the NCAA record in the four fastest events in college swimming.

At this past week’s NCAA Championships alone, she accomplished a preseason goal that she had labeled the “triple threat:" capturing three individual events (the most a swimmer can enter at NCAAs) in three record times.

Since the start of February’s ACC Championships, she accomplished the following:

  • 50 freestyle: lowered NCAA record from 20.79 seconds to 20.37
  • 100 freestyle: lowered NCAA record from 45.56 to 44.83
  • 100 backstroke: lowered NCAA record from 48.26 to 48.10
  • 100 butterfly: lowered NCAA record from 48.46 to 47.42

The 6-foot-1 Walsh has been a precocious talent, along with older sister Alex, the Tokyo Olympic 200m individual medley silver medalist who also won three individual NCAA titles last week.

At age 13, Gretchen qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials nine days before the meet and was the youngest of the more than 1,500 swimmers there.

In 2021, Walsh placed fifth in the 50m free at the Tokyo Olympic Trials after her senior year of high school at Nashville’s Harpeth Hall. Harpeth alumni also include three-time 1984 Olympic champion Tracy Caulkins, arguably the best all-around female swimmer in U.S. history.

She missed the 2022 World Championships team by one hundredth of a second in the 50m free. She did reach the 2023 Worlds, where she took third in the 50m fly (not an Olympic event), eighth in the 100m fly and 11th in the 50m free, plus earned two relay medals.

Walsh said she proved something to herself in making her first world team last year.

“It finally put me on this track, like, Paris 2024, I’m not afraid to admit that’s my goal and that’s the dream,” she said in November. “Not only is it to make it, but it’s to succeed there, win gold.”

Walsh, an NCAA champion all three years at Virginia, was aware last year of some calling her a “bathtub swimmer,” or somebody who has significantly better results in 25-yard NCAA pools than in 50-meter pools used for major international meets such as the Olympics and world championships.

Swimmers can spend 65% of an NCAA race under water versus 30% of an Olympic one. The rule for both is that they must break the surface 15 meters after each wall.

The ability to generate speed under water with dolphin kicks is so important, and so different, from stroking away above it that the skill is often called the fifth stroke in addition to freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke.

Some college swimmers who excel under water can comparatively struggle in the bigger pools, where they may need to take twice as many strokes.

“Everyone always says, like, I’m just a bathtub swimmer, can’t do the long course (50-meter) pool, but I think I finally proved to myself that I can do both,” Walsh said in November. “I know that I still have a lot of room to grow in terms of long course, but having (made the world team at the 2023 U.S. Championships) as round one and building up from there, I’ve already taken so many lessons that I learned from that meet into my training.”

Every swimmer this century who previously won three individual NCAA titles in NCAA record times in one meet also had success internationally: Natalie Coughlin (2002), Ryan Lochte (2006), Caeleb Dressel (2018), Kate Douglass (2023) and Léon Marchand (2023), according to the swimming news website

Next up for Walsh is June’s Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, where the top two in most events make the team for Paris.

In the 50m free, Walsh could face Simone Manuel (Tokyo Olympic Trials winner), Torri Huske (2022 World trials winner) and Abbey Weitzeil (2023 World trials winner).

In the 100m free, where likely the top six will make the team for relay purposes, the field could also include the women who won trials the last three years: Weitzeil, Huske and Douglass. Plus Manuel, the co-2016 Olympic gold medalist.

Huske won the 100m fly at the last three trials. Claire Curzan took silver in that event at February’s world championships.

Walsh said in November that her coach at Virginia, Todd DeSorbo, thinks she can break the world record in the 100m fly. That would require lowering her personal best by 87 hundredths of a second in a 55-second race.

On Friday, she lowered her personal best by 83 hundredths in the 100-yard fly to shatter her own NCAA record.

“I think it’s hard for Gretchen to really blow my mind,” DeSorbo said, “and she definitely did on that one.”