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Kate Douglass took different strokes to swimming success

Kate Douglass went from squeezing onto the Tokyo Olympic team by two hundredths of a second in 2021 to becoming arguably the world’s most versatile swimmer in 2023, winning six medals at July’s world championships.

At USA Swimming’s annual Golden Goggles awards in November, Douglass shared the stage with Katie Ledecky as co-Female Athlete of the Year winners.

Douglass made the 2023 World team in freestyle, breaststroke and individual medley events. No American woman has swum all of those disciplines over an Olympic career. Douglass could do it over five days in Paris in July. She is an NCAA champion in the butterfly, too.

The 22-year-old native of suburban New York looked ahead to 2024 in a September goal-setting session with Todd DeSorbo, her coach at the University of Virginia.

“I said I wanted to make the Olympic team in multiple events,” Douglass recalled, “and kind of be as dominant as I can this summer.”

Douglass’ drive goes back to the Westchester Aquatic Club Wolverines, her club team from age 7 to 15.

“She loved doing things correctly and challenging herself to see how fast you can go using perfect technique,” said Carle’ Fierro, who coached her then. “I would set goals for her, and then once she was close to that goal, I would set another one.”

Westchester swimmers received rubber ducks for personal bests or remarkable efforts in practice. Douglass’ mom, Allison, estimated she collected more than 50.

In January 2015, the reward was ice cream after Douglass qualified for her first Olympic Trials less than two months after her 13th birthday. At the same meet, she took photos with Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte (images courtesy Fierro).

Around that time, she spent 16 months wearing a back brace for 16 hours a day to treat moderate scoliosis. Douglass said that was likely the biggest challenge of her life to this point. She lugged the brace to her first Olympic Trials in 2016, where she raced four events with a best finish of 32nd as one of the youngest swimmers at the meet.

Douglass then spent her last two years of high school swimming at Chelsea Piers Aquatic Club in Stamford, Connecticut. Her coach there, Jamie Barone, had trained with Michael Phelps in the early 2000s at North Baltimore Aquatic Club.

“I watched Phelps go from an unknown 15-year-old to who he is. I swam at a national, international caliber for quite a while, and never in my life have I seen a swimmer move through the water the way Kate Douglass moves through the water,” Barone said of her efficient and deceptively effortless strokes. “She cuts through the water like a knife.”

Swimswam ranked her the No. 1 high school recruit of the class of 2019 in one of their 1,000-plus articles tagging her over the last decade.

Douglass considered schools in California, the longtime hotbed of women’s swimming, but ultimately stayed closer to home at the University of Virginia.

The Cavaliers were coming off a 12th-place finish at NCAAs and a coaching change, hiring DeSorbo to lead a program for the first time.

“She wasn’t going to college to try to make an Olympic team,” Allison said. "(Douglass and DeSorbo) matured together.”

Three more in Swimswam’s top 16 of the class of 2019 also went to Charlottesville. Virginia has since three-peated as national champion, with Douglass turning pro (but not moving) after sweeping all seven of her events at last March’s NCAAs (three individual, four relay).

“She takes days off,” DeSorbo said, “but mainly because I force her to. She gets really anxious and stressed if she feels like she’s not doing enough.”

The nerves were there on the fourth night of the Tokyo Olympic Trials, where the top two make the team in each individual event.

Douglass, after placing third in the 100m butterfly, was seeded second going into the final of the 200m individual medley, a race she hated at the time. It was a hard event for her, and it caused anxiety.

Still, she considered it her last real chance to qualify, though she still had other races remaining.

“That was kind of the first time I’ve ever really been under that kind of pressure,” she said. “Making the team was something I kind of never really believed that I’d do. I just didn’t really want to set that goal for myself and be disappointed.”

Douglass trailed second place by 1.03 seconds after the first 100 meters. She then powered home in her two best strokes — breast and free — to out-touch Madisyn Cox by two hundredths for the second and final Olympic spot behind Virginia teammate Alex Walsh.

“After I made it, I was like, oh, this is legit,” she said, “and then I think that I kept that momentum going.”

In Tokyo, Douglass rallied from sixth place at the midpoint to grab bronze by 11 hundredths of a second. Upon returning home, she donated a bunch of Olympic swag to Westchester Aquatic Club.

In 2022, she took a break from the 200m IM. She won 200m breast bronze at worlds instead.

Then came the summer of 2023. At the U.S. Championships, she won the 100m free and 200m IM, placed second in the 200m breast and third in the 50m free and 100m fly. At worlds, she took 200m IM gold and 200m breast silver, was fourth in the 100m free and anchored four medal-winning relays. Her six medals tied for the most of any swimmer.

“The variety of events that Kate can be competitive on an international level is, as far as I know, unrivaled in swimming history,” Barone said.

Douglass said in November that she will probably race four events at June’s Olympic Trials. She will likely skip the 100m fly even though it’s held on days one and two, and she would have no other events until day four. If trials go well, she can become the first American woman to swim six events at an Olympics (including relays) since Missy Franklin swam a record seven in 2012.

Kate Douglass’ Possible Olympic Trials Schedule

June 18Day100m FreestyleHeats
Night100m FreestyleSemifinals
June 19Day200m BreaststrokeHeats
Night100m FreestyleFinal
Night200m BreaststrokeSemifinals
June 20Night200m BreaststrokeFinal
June 21Day200m Individual MedleyHeats
Night200m Individual MedleySemifinals
June 22Day50m FreestyleHeats
Night50m FreestyleSemifinals
Night200m Individual MedleyFinal
June 23Night50m FreestyleFinal

“I can’t remember if she said it or I said it, but I think one of the big goals is to try and break the world record in the 200m IM,” DeSorbo said. The world record is 2:06.12. Douglass is the sixth-fastest woman in history at 2:07.09.

Douglass is also working toward a master’s degree in statistics. Her busy summer included a remote data analytics internship with Dell Technologies.

In a Nov. 3 Virginia swimming Instagram Q&A, she said, “I see retirement in the near future. I don’t know when, but it’s coming. And I’m looking forward to it,” according to Swimswam.

She later clarified it was sarcasm.

“I always joke about retiring because I’m like, I can’t wait for retirement,” she said. “But at the same time, I mean, I have no idea. I definitely wouldn’t retire after this summer.”

Douglass admires Maya DiRado, who decided before her first Olympics in 2016 that it would be her final meet. DiRado won gold in her last race, then began a career as a business analyst at age 23. Douglass met DiRado to learn more about that transition.

“She’s so talented and also knows that there’s plenty to life after swimming,” DiRado wrote in an email, “which I hope young athletes, coaches, and parents appreciate when they watch her next summer.”