‘Bittersweet’: Kyle Chalmers falls achingly short at his brilliant best
Kyle Chalmers has been to hell and back. Standing in the bowels of the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on Thursday, he listed the agony his body had been through since he won gold in the men’s 100m freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I had shoulder surgery seven months ago,” he said. “I’ve had 12 cortisone injections in my left shoulder just to get to this point. I’ve had PRP [platelet-rich plasma therapy] twice … I’ve had ankle problems, I’ve had three facet-joint epidurals in my back. I’ve had cortisone in my right shoulder. I’ve had three heart surgeries. And that’s just the physical side of things.”
Many swimmers would have retired. Not Chalmers. Five years since winning the blue riband 100m freestyle as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, the South Australian was back in Tokyo. No Australian man had ever defended a 100m freestyle gold; only a handful of swimmers have done so in the sport’s long Olympic history. Chalmers had battled through the pain in the hope of adding his name to that short list.
Ultimately he fell agonisingly short of defending his Rio crown, touching the wall just six one-hundredths of a second behind friend and rival Caeleb Dressel. Chalmers will not make Australian swimming history, but it was still a remarkable result. His time of 47.08 equalled a personal best.
“It’s probably a bit bittersweet to be honest,” the Australian admitted in a raw interview after his race. “To back it up after gold in Rio, and the five-year journey it has been – it’s been really challenging – so to get silver is amazing.
“Everything is challenging, everyone has challenges. But to stand up and go an equal-best time in an Olympic final when it counts the most, with all the pressure and the expectation on me, it is special.”
Dealing with pain has probably been the biggest challenge for me mentally
Chalmers’s silver adds to two relay bronze medals already secured in Tokyo, with the possibility that more will follow in the days ahead (the Olympic swim meet concludes on Sunday). Chalmers had no doubts his silver medal made all the pain worthwhile.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Seeing my coach, seeing how emotional he was after the race, obviously he’s there every step of the way with me – … I probably spend more time with him than my family or anyone else in the world. I’m really content and happy. It definitely does make it worth it.”
But it has been, in Chalmers’s own words, “a real rollercoaster”. He has been dogged by his shoulder injury. Following the Olympic trials in Adelaide last month, the 23-year-old required two cortisone injections in his left shoulder and one in his right to manage the pain.
“Obviously after Rio I felt untouchable – I was the young kid who stood up and won,” he said. “Then the reality sunk in.”
The reality has not been pleasant. Chalmers swims with lingering shoulder pain. He said there are days when his daily life is affected by the pain. Every time the Rio champion thought he was back to his best, something else went wrong. The postponement of the 2020 Olympics last year only added to the self-doubt.
“Dealing with [the day-to-day pain] has probably been the biggest challenge for me mentally,” he said. “You kind of feel like it’s two steps forwards, one step back type thing. There have been plenty of moments where I thought it wasn’t possible for me to be at these Olympics Games, let alone in the final doing my best time again.”
Having made it through hell and back, Chalmers is hopeful this is not his last Olympics. Asked about a rematch between the two kings of freestyle – himself and Dressel – Chalmers floated the possibility he might be back in 2024. He gets the big one this time, I got him in Rio,” he saud. “Let’s hope it goes to round three in Paris,.”
An hour later, fronting the press again, Chalmers came even closer to committing to another three years of the grind, the pain, the suffering – all for the hope of gold in Paris.
“I think so,” he said, still looking elated with his silver medal. “I think there’ll be some time to reflect – hopefully take some time off probably after ISL [International Swimming League] this year. But I’d say there’s a fair chance that I’ll be back in three years’ time.”