After Swimming Faster 400 IM than Olympic Gold Medalist, Carson Foster More Motivated Than Ever

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Carson Foster -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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After Swimming Faster 400 IM than Olympic Gold Medalist, Carson Foster More Motivated Than Ever

Six weeks before Jay Litherland moved up from sixth place after 300 meters into silver medal position at the finish in the men’s 400 IM final at the Olympic Games, Litherland pulled the exact same comeback at the U.S. Olympic Trials. In that race, Litherland was three seconds behind second-place Carson Foster at start of the freestyle leg before he motored ahead with his phenomenal finishing freestyle. Chase Kalisz won that race, and Litherland took second, a finish the duo would repeat at the Tokyo Olympics.

While Kalisz and Litherland turned their attention to taking on the world’s best in Tokyo, Foster had one more shot to make the Olympic team, as a relay swimmer in the 200 free. He initially finished ninth in the semifinals but got into the final after Luca Urlando scratched, and then Foster again came agonizingly close to earning the top-six finish he needed to book a trip to Tokyo, but he missed by 0.18, ending up eighth.

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Carson Foster swimming next to Chase Kalisz in the 400 IM final at Olympic Trials — Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

So Foster went back to Austin, Texas, where he will begin his sophomore year as a Texas Longhorn next month. The 19-year-old got back to training with newly-unretired Texas head coach Eddie Reese and assistant Wyatt Collins with no intentions of racing again during the summer, but it didn’t take long for him to change his mind.

“It’s so hard not to get fired up when you’re training with the group that we have,” Foster said. “It kind of re-lit the flame a little bit when I got back down and trained with everyone.”

So he decided to compete in a Sectionals meet in Austin at the end of July. He had no plans on trying the 400 IM, but “about six days before the meet started, I did a pace set with a suit on, just because I’ve been working a lot on my breaststroke, just to see how it go. I was going faster than I was before trials, and I said to Eddie and Wyatt, ‘Why don’t I swim the 400 IM and see what happens?’ I think they were a little bit hesitant at first, but they could tell I really wanted to do it.”

Foster knew he could apply some takeaways from Trials to his Sectionals swim, and he did sjust that. Foster swam his race in 4:08.46, and that was the fastest time in the world for 2020, ahead of Kalisz’s winning time from Olympic Trials (4:09.09) or anyone else from around the world. He knocked more than two seconds off his lifetime best and became the ninth-fastest performer in history. Among Americans, only Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Kalisz and Tyler Clary have ever surpassed that time.

Foster believed he “jumped on the first 150 a little too hard at Trials, and obviously, it backfired.” So he tried to stay more relaxed on the butterfly leg and build through the backstroke, to use his strengths without consuming too much energy so he had something left for the finish—so he wouldn’t swim the type of freestyle leg where he may surrender a three-second advantage. Indeed, Foster was able to swim his first 300 in 3:10.41, just a few tenths slower than his 3:10.03 split from Trials, but his last 100 split was 58.05, compared to a 1:00.83 at Trials. The final time? 2.4 seconds faster.

A day later, Foster had just competed in the 400 free at that Sectionals meet, and he was picking up dinner with his older brother, Jake, when he turned on the 400 IM Olympic final on his phone. With 100 meters to go, Carson turned to Jake and said, “I think my time is going to hold.” Indeed, Kalisz touched first in 4:09.42, and Litherland took silver in 4:10.28. Foster was left with the world’s fastest time and no medal or Olympic rings to show for it.

It is not an apples-to-apples comparison, especially since Foster was swimming at a low-pressure Sectionals meet where he could cruise prelims (his morning time was a 4:17.70), but the realization was still agonizing.

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Carson Foster throws up the “hook ’em” sign after a race during his freshman year at the University of Texas — Photo Courtesy: Texas Athletics

“My first thought was, ‘Dang. Why? Why did I not make it?’” Foster said. “The second I thought I had was, I truly believe everything happens for a reason. While I never know why this was the plan for me, I trust it’s going to serve me in the long run.”

Foster said that while he is disappointed he did not get the Olympic opportunity he had been seeking, he does not feel any bitterness or resentment. “They got first and second at Trials. That’s how the selection works,” Foster said. “While it’s disappointing to be on the losing side of that, it’s how our sport works, and that’s why our team is always so good at the Olympics, because our trials are so competitive.”

On the contrary, he’s thrilled for Kalisz and Litherland, particularly after both took time after the 400 IM Trials final to encourage him and give him some pointers. And he’s glad to see the U.S. back on top in an event where the country had won gold in five straight Olympics prior to 2016. He has already thought about hopefully continuing the streak himself, his sights already set on the 2024 and 2028 Olympics.

Right after that race, Collins texted Foster “encouraging things, saying that we’re going to be ready for next year for Worlds and in three years when the next Trials and the next Olympics are. It seems like a long way away, but honestly, it’s not that far away in the whole scheme of things,” Foster said. Next year’s World Championships will take place in late May instead of the usual July slot, so the U.S. selection meet will take place in April. Foster is thrilled about that timing because “it’s less time that I have to wait before I can get my redemption shot.”

After watching the Olympic final Saturday evening, Foster said, “I don’t think I’ve ever been more motivated than I was when I woke up this morning.”

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