BUDAPEST — When 16-year-old swimmer Leah Hayes at last sat down for dinner after the final day of April’s world championships trials, she rested her head on the table. Her father asked if she was OK.
Hayes looked up, said she was fine and added, “It’s just a lot.”
Nancy Hooper, Hayes’ coach in the western suburbs of Chicago, was also there for the meal. She remembered that moment in North Carolina in detail.
“There weren’t tears, but you could tell she was really emotional,” Hooper said. “And we said, ‘It is a lot, Leah. But it is time for you to take a deep breath, sit here and totally enjoy this.'”
Hours earlier, Hayes qualified for the U.S. team by finishing second in the 200m individual medley in her fourth and final event of the five-day meet.
She was the 41st and final swimmer to make the roster for the world championships, which began here Saturday at the Duna Arena.
Her presence on the team, which includes Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel, surprised Hayes, who came to trials hoping to qualify for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.
“It’s just such an overwhelming feeling of joy,” Hayes said in a poolside TV interview at trials on April 30.
She was the first U.S. swimmer to race in Budapest and was up for the moment, blasting a personal-best time to advance to Saturday night’s 200m individual medley semifinals as the second seed.
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Hayes ranks third in the world this year in the 200m IM, trailing Olympic silver medalist Alex Walsh of the U.S. and Australian Kaylee McKeown, who swept the backstroke golds in Tokyo.
“I know that she couldn’t be more ready,” Hooper said before the meet. “She needs to take that passion that she has, that she always races with, get on the blocks and let it happen.”
Hayes has been on the ascent since her first competitive strokes around age 7, which was also about the time she first started losing her hair. Hayes, who races without a swim cap, has alopecia universalis, an autoimmune disease where the body attacks all of the hair follicles as the enemy.
By age 9, Hayes swept every event at a regional swim meet. Just after turning 13, she was profiled by Sports Illustrated as its SportsKid of the Year.
She now holds six national age group records across the breaststroke, freestyle and individual medleys spanning the 10-and-under category to her most recent for the ages 15-16 group, that 2:09.81 in the 200m IM prelims at worlds.
“Leah believes in herself more than any athlete I’ve ever trained,” Hooper told SI in 2018. “She’s always had a very natural feel for the water. Nothing’s hard to teach her.”
Before the pandemic, Hayes posted on her bedroom wall the times needed to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Trials.
She also pinned the quote, “Never set a limit on your dreams. You may not know when or where they will come true, but you must always believe that they will.” Missy Franklin tweeted that at age 17, the day after she finished the 2012 Olympics with four gold medals.
Hayes did make it to the Olympic Trials last year. In three events, she didn’t get beat by any swimmers younger than her while setting personal bests in the 200m and 400m individual medleys. She finished 10th and 11th in those races.
“I wasn’t in the best shape that I could have been,” she said last week. “Being there helped me realize that I want to go even further in the sport. I’d like to make the Olympics.”
This spring brought new challenges. Hayes was diagnosed with her first significant injury, a stress fracture in her left foot. She was put in a walking boot a week before trials but could still shed it to swim.
Then at trials, she qualified first into the 400m IM final, ahead of three Tokyo Olympians, by chopping 3.32 seconds off her personal-best time in prelims.
Later that night, she led the final through 300 meters. In the last 100 meters of freestyle, Hayes dropped to fourth and touched the wall in a time 1.05 seconds slower than her prelim.
Though she expressed some disappointment, the times put everything into context. To break into the top two to make the world team in the event, she would have needed to go another two seconds faster than her prelim time. Plus, Hayes achieved her first goal by making the Junior Pan Pacs team in the event.
“Fourth in that race was a successful race for me,” Hooper said. “To her, going back into a final that she’s seeded first, no matter who is seeded second, third and fourth, she wanted a better outcome for that.”
Then came the 200m IM on the final day, her favorite event. “It’s not too long,” Hayes said, “but it also requires strategy.”
What Hayes didn’t anticipate was what came over the loudspeakers shortly after her prelim. She was disqualified.
“It was a dreadful moment,” Hayes said.
An official deemed she flinched on the blocks, enough to call a false start. Hayes gathered herself and went to the cooldown pool, where a friend congratulated her. What for? Hayes asked. They overturned the DQ, the friend said. Two lead officials had reinstated her.
“The amount of relief I felt was like a breath of fresh air,” said Hayes, who said the entire episode took about three minutes.
Hayes was the second seed for the final and lived up to it, touching the wall after Walsh to grab the last spot on the world team. She lowered her personal best by 1.13 seconds in the biggest race of her young life.
“So fast!” Walsh told Hayes as they embraced in the pool.
Then came the whirlwind. Hayes did a post-race TV interview with Walsh. Then came drug-testing, media and the world championships team announcement. Upon leaving the building, she obliged a large group of kids by signing autographs.
“You’re going to have so much down the road in the next six, eight weeks,” Hooper told Hayes that night, looking ahead to the U.S. team’s pre-worlds camp in Croatia, and then the championships in Budapest. “But this is a moment where you get to celebrate and just think about all the good things that happened.”
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