Melanie Margalis

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

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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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Regan Smith caps another impressive swim meet with another historic time

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Regan Smith swam the sixth-fastest 100m backstroke in history, completing yet another impressive meet in Des Moines on Saturday.

Smith, a Minnesota high school senior, won the 100m back in 58.18 seconds at a Tyr Pro Series stop.

Smith, who lowered the world record to 57.57 leading off a relay at the 2019 World Championships, beat a field that included former world-record holder Kathleen Baker (second in 58.56) and world bronze medalist Olivia Smoliga (third in 59.25). Full Des Moines results are here.

“That’s my second-best time ever, so I really can’t complain,” Smith said.

That trio should gather again at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, when the top two per individual event qualify for the Tokyo Games.

Smith’s Olympic prospects are pretty promising.

In Des Moines, she swept the backstrokes and lowered her personal bests in the 100m and 200m butterflies.

Smith, who broke both backstroke world records at July’s world championships, now ranks second and third among Americans in the butterflies since the start of 2019, though she may not swim the 100m fly at trials.

In other events Saturday, Caeleb Dressel outsprinted Nathan Adrian and Michael Andrew to win the 50m freestyle in 21.51 seconds. Dressel, the third-fastest man in history with a best of 21.04, also won the 100m butterfly on Friday.

Andrew won the 200m individual medley in 1:56.83, a personal best by .66 of a second. He remains the second-fastest American in the event since the start of 2019.

“It’s a relatively open event,” for the U.S. Olympic team, said Andrew, who previously lowered his 100m breaststroke personal best in Des Moines, rebounding after not earning an individual medal at worlds. “Try and make a statement to say, hey guys, this is a race we’re focusing on. We want you to know, we’re coming for it.”

Ryan Lochte, trying to make his fifth Olympics at age 35, was seventh in the 200m IM in 2:01.60. Lochte is the world-record holder and four-time world champion in the event. More notably for Tokyo Olympic hopes, he ranks fifth among Americans since the start of 2019. It may be his best hope at trials.

Madisyn Cox and Melanie Margalis tied for the win in the women’s 200m IM in 2:09.03. That’s a personal best for Cox by .66. Baker, who wasn’t in the race, remains fastest among Americans since the start of 2019 with a 2:08.84.

Olympic champion and world-record holder Ryan Murphy won a battle of the U.S.’ top backstrokers, taking the 100m in 52.79. Jacob Pebley, a Rio Olympic 200m backstroker, was second in 54.45, while 2012 Olympic gold medalist Matt Grevers was fourth in 54.62.

Simone Manuel and Lilly King took runner-up finishes in the 50m free and 200m breast, respectively, at a meet where top swimmers are not peaked as they continue to build up for the trials.

The Pro Series moves to Mission Viejo, Calif., for the next stop from April 16-19.

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Katie Ledecky, after being slowed by illness, showcases her speed

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How fast is the greatest distance swimmer in history?

Katie Ledecky answered Friday, clocking her fourth-best 200m freestyle ever at a Tyr Pro Series meet in Des Moines.

Swimmers peak not for March meets, but for the U.S. Olympic Trials in June and, of course, the Tokyo Games in July and August. Historic times now bode well for the bigger races to come.

Ledecky touched in 1:54.59 to crush by nearly two seconds a field that included the U.S.’ other top 200m freestylers — Allison Schmitt and Simone Manuel. The previous two days, Ledecky won the 1500m free by 46 seconds and the 400m free by seven seconds.

“It’s exceeded my expectations,” Ledecky said of her first meet of 2020. “I figured I’d have a good meet given how great training is going, but you really never know coming into a meet like this if you’re going to be completely dead from training, or if it’s going to start showing.”

The 200m free appears to be the shortest event on Ledecky’s agenda this year. She wasn’t part of the 4x100m free relay at last summer’s worlds, before she missed races with an illness. She must focus more on distance training for this Olympic year than in 2016 given the addition of the 1500m to the Olympic program.

In the 200m, Ledecky was relegated to silver at the 2017 Worlds and bronze at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships. She scratched the event at last summer’s worlds due to what she believed was a stomach virus that caused her to spend seven hours in a South Korean emergency room.

Still, Ledecky’s winning time from Rio — 1:53.73 — is faster than any swimmer has recorded in this Olympic cycle. It’s still very important to her going toward trials, where the top two per individual event make the Olympic team. Ledecky hasn’t lost a 200m free domestically in more than six years.

“It’s just as high up as any of the other events, if not more given that we’ve got a relay fight on our hands this year,” Ledecky said on NBCSN, referencing the 4x200m free relay that the U.S. lost to Australia at worlds. “Putting in just as much work for that as the distance events.”

The Tyr Pro Swim Series at Des Moines concludes Saturday with finals at 7:30 p.m. ET streaming on USASwimming.org. Full results are here.

In other events Friday, Caeleb Dressel overtook Michael Andrew to win the 100m butterfly in 50.92, the fastest time in the world in 2020. Dressel, who broke Michael Phelps‘ world record at last summer’s worlds (49.50), beat Andrew by .41. Andrew lowered his personal best to improve to fourth-fastest among Americans since the start of 2019.

“I’m faster than I was at this point in the season last year,” Dressel said. “I don’t want to get caught up in what I’m swimming in March. It doesn’t matter at all.”

World-record holder Regan Smith held off Olympian Kathleen Baker in the 200m backstroke, clocking 2:06.16 to prevail by three tenths. Smith, an 18-year-old Minnesota high school senior, lowered the world record to 2:03.35 at last summer’s world championships. Baker, who ceded her 100m back world record to Smith last summer, recorded a time on Friday that would have earned bronze at worlds.

About 45 minutes later, Smith lowered her 100m butterfly personal best for the second time in one day. Smith clocked 57.34, .01 behind the U.S.’ top sprint butterflier, Kelsi Dahlia. Smith, who may not swim the 100m fly at trials, improved to third-fastest among Americans in the event since the start of 2019.

Ryan Murphy won the men’s 200m back in 1:55.22, the fastest time in the world this year. Murphy, the Rio Olympic champion, was relegated to silver by Russian Yevgeny Rylov at the last two worlds. Rylov was not in the Des Moines field.

Melanie Margalis took 2.97 seconds off her 400m individual medley personal best, winning in 4:32.53. Margalis, fourth in the Rio Olympic 200m IM, improved from the fifth-fastest American in the 400m IM since the start of 2019 to No. 1 by 2.94 seconds.

Ryan Lochte was fourth in the men’s 400m IM won by German Jacob Heidtmann. Lochte, the 2012 Olympic 400m IM champion, clocked 4:18.95 and still ranks outside the top 10 Americans in the event since the start of 2019. Lochte’s best chance to make a fifth Olympic team at age 35 appears to be in the 200m IM.

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