Kyle Chalmers: "I love winning the mental challenge"

The 100m freestyle Olympic champ reveals Caeleb Dressel's training offer, how three heart surgeries changed his outlook on swimming, and speaks of his desire to return to Aussie Rules

You want an alpha male swim star?

Enter Kyle Chalmers, a rare kind of Olympic champion.

Growing up, the Australian considered his future profession ‘just another sport’ that helped him keep fit for his first love: Australian Rules Football.

Despite his passion for the highly physical sport uniquely played Down Under, fate had another plan for the 1.93m boy from the country.

Chalmers was persuaded to focus on swimming, and a few years later shocked the world to be crowned Australia's first 100m freestyle Olympic champion in over a century at the Rio 2016 Olympics. He was just 18 years old.

Australia's Chalmers wins gold in Men's 100m Freestyle

Australia's Chalmers wins gold in Men's 100m Freestyle

Unbeknown to Chalmers, there was another fascinating subplot to his moment in Brazil.

Lining up alongside the Port Lincoln native in the 100m free final was a 19-year-old named Caeleb Dressel.

The American could only manage sixth place that day, but an amazing rivalry - and friendship - had been born in swimming’s blue-ribbon event.

In an exclusive interview with Olympic Channel, Chalmers reveals how his love for Aussie Rules has made him a better swimmer. He told us how his three heart surgeries have given him a greater appreciation for life, and his focus in 2021 is to become the first Australian to win consecutive 100m freestyle Olympic titles.

A battle of the champions

A heart condition - that caused Chalmers heart rate to soar unexpectedly even when not training - prevented him from meeting Dressel at the 2017 world championships.

The Florida man didn’t need a second invitation to grab the Olympic champion’s attention, sealing seven gold medals including the 100m freestyle world title.

The stage was set for a freestyle showdown between the two champions at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, where Chalmers came out on top. But Dressel avenged that defeat at the 2019 world championships, where he beat the Australian to retain his title.

We caught up with Chalmers to talk about resilience, mental toughness and what swimming has to do with boxing.

Kyle Chalmers and Caeleb Dressel could go head to head in freestyle and butterfly at Tokyo 2020.
Kyle Chalmers and Caeleb Dressel could go head to head in freestyle and butterfly at Tokyo 2020.Kyle Chalmers and Caeleb Dressel could go head to head in freestyle and butterfly at Tokyo 2020.

Olympic Channel: How have you been training since the coronavirus outbreak?

Kyle Chalmers: I'm lucky that the virus is quite well contained in Adelaide and I'm still able to do some training at the big pool - but only in very small groups due to social restrictions. I’m also getting a shipping container swim pool in my yard in the next couple of weeks. Essentially it's just a six metre by two and a half metre wide swimming pool. It's above ground and it's got a big jet that I will swim against. With the virus every day brings different information and it's very difficult to predict what's going to happen. So once I found out the news, and that pools may shut at any time, we looked into options of how I could potentially swim. I don't want to lose my feel for the water and this was the best option. The pool will be in my backyard until the Olympic Games in 2021, so I'm very, very fortunate to have that opportunity as well.

An example of the pool that Chalmers will train in at home (Photo courtesy: Shipping Container Pools)
An example of the pool that Chalmers will train in at home (Photo courtesy: Shipping Container Pools)An example of the pool that Chalmers will train in at home (Photo courtesy: Shipping Container Pools)

The early years

OC: Tell us a bit about your sporting background growing up…

KC: I grew up in a country town of about 13,000 people, eight hours away from any major city. So I played as much sport as I could as a kid. My dad was a professional Aussie Rules footballer, so I always wanted to follow in his footsteps. I played Aussie Rules football, soccer, tennis, basketball, athletics, cricket, and then swimming was just another sport, really. I looked at it as an opportunity to be fit for my football, as I wanted to be an Aussie Rules professional.

I came across and ended up making the South Australian state swimming team.

They needed to pick a few country kids on the team and that's the only reason I got picked as a nine year old kid! I had never even seen a 50 metres swimming pool before and gave it a crack.

I realised that I was a handy swimmer and training started to pick up a little bit. Then 2015 was the big year for me as I went to our swimming national championships in Sydney, and ended up coming fourth against the older guys, which meant that I made the World Championships team to go to Kazan in 2015.

I went back and played football a week after making the world championship swimming team and ended up cracking the bone in my wrist and doing the ligaments in my ankle. The head coach of Swimming Australia called me and said 'mate, it's time to make the decision what you want to do.'

I signed up to swim for Australia at the world championships as a 16-year-old without knowing anyone, but I had the best time in my life and after that I just gave everything to swimming as I wanted to be on that Olympic team come 2016. I was hoping to make a relay team for Rio, but I ended up getting second at trials and qualifying for the individual freestyle, and then I ended up going on to win it.

It's something that's motivated me almost every day since, to have that feeling again of standing on the top of the podium, wearing the Australian crest and an Olympic gold medal around your neck. There’s only been three Australians ever do it in the 100m free, and I'm very lucky to be in that group.

Future plans

OC: What is it you love about Aussie Rules, and will you ever consider switching sports?

KC: I love how rough and tough it is, and I love team environments. So I've really tried to translate that into swimming as much as I can. They’re obviously completely different sports as swimming's not physical and it's an individual sport, whereas Aussie Rules is all physical and team orientated. So I've tried to take aspects of it into swimming and I think it's helped me in ways.

The warm up that I do before swim races is completely different to any other athlete. I kick a football around, and try to talk to as many people as I can in my team. Even in the call room, I like walking around like I would before a footy game. I guess footy has been my love and will always be my love.

I miss it massively and can’t wait to finish up swimming and go back to play country footy with all my mates, and have some fun doing it. But I know that you get such a small time in professional sports. I'm taking advantage of being a professional swimmer now and being at the top of top of my game.

I always thought that I'd probably be done with swimming after the Tokyo Olympics. I think it was depending on how I swam there. But over this period where swimming's been taken away from me, I've realised how much I do love it and how much I would miss it, so if I was to say right now, then I would say yes, definitely I'll swim on until Paris. But I do dream of giving Aussie Rules a crack. I don't think I'll play the elite level, which was always my dream and probably is my dream. But I know that by the time swimming is done, I think I'll be ready to step outside of professional sport and just enjoy sport for what it is. Train with your mates, play with your mates and have a lot of fun with it.

Chalmers predicts that he will swim until the Paris 2024 Olympics.
Chalmers predicts that he will swim until the Paris 2024 Olympics.Chalmers predicts that he will swim until the Paris 2024 Olympics.

The mental side of things

OC: How much of swimming is mental?

KC: It's hugely mental, especially in a 100 freestyle. That's kind of the alpha male, blue-ribbon event of the swimming world. So it's a lot of psyching out in the call room. The race is swum completely different by every single person, so you've got to be mentally confident in yourself that you stick to your race plan, no matter what the person in the lane next to you is doing. No matter what they're doing in the call room or the warm up pool, you're completely confident in yourself that you can stand up and swim your best and win. If you doubt that you're not going to win, then there's no chance you're going to win. You’ve got to look at UFC fighters or boxers. No matter who they're fighting, they go into the ring completely confident in themselves, and I love listening to their press conferences and pre-fight, how much they talk themselves up. The only way I guess you can get to that point is working with a sports psychologist to really start believing in yourself. It's a skill you really have to work on daily.

OC: You’ve said before that you are chasing 'greatness’ at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. What does greatness mean to you?

Well, greatness for me is defending my title and swimming the fastest I've ever swam. So I know these last four years I've had plenty of challenges to overcome, but if I'm able to stand on top of that podium again and retain my title, there's only ever been two guys in history who did that. For me to be able to do that would be, I guess, a dream come true. And it really cements yourself in the history of the sport. And it's something I've been working for every day since Rio. Obviously, I kind of won as a bit of a roughie, a bit of a shock on the scene and won without really knowing how much it meant or how much it meant to our community. And now I know how much hard work and sacrifice I've really put into it to be at the top. So for me, greatness would be being number one again.

OC: You were forced to sit out the 2017 world championships due to a heart problem. After coming through three surgeries to correct the issue, how has the condition changed you as a swimmer and as a person?

KC: It's called supra-ventricular tachycardia and it's a condition that comes on completely randomly. So I could be sitting here right now and my heart rate could go up to 200 plus and I get all dizzy and potentially could blackout. It was happening quite a lot when I was training and could potentially have happened when I was racing. So it was always a bit of a concern and something that I lived with for such a long period of time.

The first surgery was in 2015 and I was sedated, meaning they couldn't get enough stimulation in my heart to find the problem and they couldn’t fix it. The second surgery in 2017 worked initially, before making the problem worse. The third surgery was in August 2019 after worlds and I haven’t had a problem since. It's a massive relief, and fingers crossed I don’t have to think about it anymore.

It has helped me get a better understanding for life. When you realise that sport can be taken away from you, that you realise that the world isn’t all about sport.

So I think it's helped me become a lot more grateful for what I have now and the opportunities I have and get on a daily basis, and how I can give back to people that have the same. I try to promote it as much as I can. I have people message me on Instagram all the time with the condition, and I make sure I give them my feedback on how I got through the challenges.

Three heart surgeries gave Chalmers a new appreciation of life, and he now gives back by raising awareness of the condition.
Three heart surgeries gave Chalmers a new appreciation of life, and he now gives back by raising awareness of the condition.Three heart surgeries gave Chalmers a new appreciation of life, and he now gives back by raising awareness of the condition.

OC: Since Rio 2016 Caeleb Dressel has won two consecutive 100m freestyle world titles, while you have also beaten him. How much does that rivalry motivate you?

It motivates me massively, but I also see Caleb as such a good friend of mine now. Even through this period we've spoken, and he even invited me over to train with him because he's been able to train right through. There's not one thing he does that you can possibly dislike.

He's point six of a second off the world record in 100 free and I'm maybe point one of a second off the hundred freestyle world record. With all the swimming history of US vs. Australia, it's kind of cool to continue that history.

Obviously in Rio we raced each other. I got the upper hand there, which was cool. And then Pan-Pacs in 2018 I got another win, before he beat me at the world championships last year. We really push each other on, and to do it on the big stage next year in Tokyo will be huge.

His skills are unbelievable. He's got the better start, and probably the best turns the world's ever seen. Whereas my skills aren't overly great. We swim it differently. But you know, that last five meters is where the dog fight is, and that's the part of the race I love. I just want to get my hand on the wall first.

OC: You love to chase people, but you're going into Tokyo as the reigning Olympic champion. Does that make you feel uncomfortable at all?

No, I don't think so. I'm a very relaxed country person, so I go into every race with same same mindset. I'm going to be doing my damage in the last fifteen meters, which means that I'm gonna be chasing every race. And I love the chase. That high lactate where it's kind of make or break, and it's like, can you push through this? I love challenging my body to see how far and how hard I can push myself. I just love racing. When I get to that point, it's just a mental challenge for me. And I love winning the mental challenge. I think it's not about getting caught up with where the other guys are. It's about sticking to what I know and how I know to swim my best.

OC: Swimming is often a sport of marginal gains. What areas will you hope to improve ahead of the Olympic Games in 2021?

KC: There's plenty of things for me. I'm only 21 years old at the moment, so next year I'm kind of entering my primary years of swimming. Now especially being back in the pool, just working on my skills, and there's a few injury niggles that I want to make sure I work on over the next little period and get on top of those. I'm working with a psychologist to make sure I'm fully confident and in the best shape going into Tokyo.

Physically, I definitely was on top of my game this year. Mentally, definitely on top of my game. I know that by July this year, I would have been swimming the fastest I've ever swam. So it's been quite hard to reset, take a little bit of time out and know that it's going to be another year training. But we’re all in the same boat and as a result of the virus, I think it's going to be potentially the biggest Olympic Games we've ever had. I know every morning when I wake up and when I go to bed at night, I’m just thinking of how big the Olympic Games is going to be, and how much I want to swim really well at that Olympic Games and really cement myself in the history of the sport.

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