How the U.S.’ best all-around swimmer overcame competition fear

Melanie Margalis
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Melanie Margalis calls them complete mental breakdowns. They used to be commonplace for the Olympian — at every meet, before she swam the 400m individual medley.

“The event freaks me out so bad,” Margalis said of a race labeled the decathlon of swimming for its grueling, all-around test. “I wish it didn’t. People are like, Mel, you’re so good. I’m like, you don’t understand what it does to me.”

Margalis, a 28-year-old who trains at the University of Georgia, finally overcame the block in recent months with the help of a sports psychologist.

On March 6, Margalis took 2.97 seconds off her personal best in the four-and-a-half-minute event at the last meet before the coronavirus pandemic halted sports. She improved from the fifth-fastest American in the 400m IM since the start of 2019 to No. 1 by a whopping 2.94 seconds. She’s now fourth-fastest in the world in that span.

“I wasn’t scared of what could happen,” she said of her mindset at the meet in Des Moines. “I wasn’t letting myself be scared of what could happen if I tried to have a good race.”

Margalis, a Rio Olympian in the 200m IM and 4x200m freestyle relay, went to Iowa searching for a sign. One to tell her whether to swim the 400m IM at trials. She left with a shuddering thought: the 400m IM might be her best event.

“When you have a breakthrough swim like that, it’s kind of scary how fast your perspective starts changing,” she said. “It still is a really hard event, and I don’t want myself to forget that.”

It is the least likely event for a veteran swimmer to excel, let alone break through late in a career. It is the only event for either gender where no American 24 years or older has made an Olympic team. At next year’s trials, Margalis could become the third-oldest woman to make a U.S. Olympic swim team in an individual pool event after 12-time Olympic medalists Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.

For Margalis, making the Olympic team in the 400m IM would hold special personal meaning.

Her older brother, Robert, swam it at three Olympic Trials, including placing third in 2008, the closest he came to making an Olympic team. He finished eight seconds behind Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, who each went under the existing world record to scoop the two available Olympic spots.

Then there’s Elizabeth Beisel, who made the last three Olympic teams in the 400m IM.

“Beisel is a point of inspiration,” Margalis said. “She’s actually about a year younger than me, but growing up, my club coach used to tell me that one day I could grow up and be Elizabeth Beisel. I looked up to her swimming for as long as I could remember.”

Beisel retired at age 24 in 2017, one year after becoming the oldest U.S. woman to swim the 400m IM at an Olympics. She has urged Margalis to take the 400m IM seriously since before the Rio Olympic Trials.

Margalis skipped the 400m IM on the first day of the 2016 trials. She then made the Olympic team three nights later in two events within an hour of each other. She placed sixth in the 200m free to make the relay and second in the 200m IM, rallying from fifth at the 150 to grab the second and final spot by five hundredths.

Margalis made the last two world championships teams, earning relay medals. She bagged her first major international medal in an individual event at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, a 400m IM silver. But two younger Americans went faster than her that year. It wasn’t until that Des Moines meet that Margalis became a bona fide star at an age most 400m IMers have moved to shorter events or, more likely, retired.

“It’s kind of unheard of,” said Beisel, who with 2008 Olympic teammate Katie Hoff slapped the label “four-IM anxiety” on the stomach pain that surfaced before racing it. “That’s part of the reason why I stopped swimming because the 400m IM was my best event. My body was saying no, and that was at age 24.”

Now Margalis is determined to swim it at trials in June 2021. The caveat: It’s on the first night of the eight-day competition. A breakdown could set a swimmer back for the rest of the meet. A win, however, could catapult her to more confidence in her other events and at the Tokyo Games.

“Now I have another year of me having a lot of opportunities to swim the 400m IM, and not having it go that way and having my confidence level drop,” Margalis said, “but I’m sure it’ll probably all work out.”

NBC Olympic Researcher Megan Soisson contributed to this report.

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