Swimming: Keep an Eye on These First-Time Olympians in Rio

Many people are familiar with the names Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and Ryan Lochte. They’re all, of course, Olympic champions. This year’s U.S. swim team also features more than 30 first-time Olympians. Here are four to watch:

Chase Kalisz
Kalisz won first place in the 400 individual medley (IM) during the Olympic Trials. His time of 4:09.54 is ranked as the second-best time in the world this year. His road to Rio, however, was not always easy. Fourteen years ago, at the age of eight, Kalisz was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder that causes your immune system to attack your nerves. Kalisz was unable to walk. He spent a week in a medically induced coma, then required a feeding tube in his mouth and was only able to communicate by blinking.

His family was told that he would spend six months to a year in a rehabilitation hospital, but he was released in only three months. As he got better, he used swimming as therapy. When he began to compete more regularly, he aimed to be like his older sister Courtney, who set national age-group records. As a college swimmer at Georgia, he was the 400 IM NCAA champion. He has trained under Bob Bowman and with Phelps, who mentioned Kalisz as a rising IM star. Kalisz is projected to medal in the 400 IM and says Phelps has constantly pushed him to swim faster.

Kathleen Baker
Baker, who qualified in the 100 backstroke, also had to overcome a debilitating disease. When Baker was 13, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, which affects about 700,000 Americans. Crohn’s causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain, fatigue, and weight loss, among other symptoms. Her health began to stabilize after she began treatment that included monthly intravenous infusions of medication.

However, after a few years, the infusions proved to be ineffective. Baker, who is 19, changed therapies and now receives biweekly injections into her abdomen. Her symptoms are in remission. While there is no known cure for Crohn’s, Baker refused to let the disease stop her from achieving her goal of making it to Rio. Baker is a swimmer at Cal.

Abbey Weitzeil
Weitzeil is a top sprinter who has qualified in the 50 and 100 freestyle. She qualified for her first Olympic Trials at the age of 14, with only two years of club experience. But when she was nine, she swam for a recreational team and didn’t enjoy it at all. Swimming was a hobby that she did for just two months out of the year to be like her sister Alexa.

When her family moved from Sacramento, California, to Santa Clarita, she began to swim for a club team at age 12. After she started to take her swimming more seriously, she almost made the Junior National cut at 13 years old. She has committed to Cal to continue her swimming career; however, she deferred her first year to focus on making it to the Olympics. She is the American record-holder in the 50-yard freestyle.

Maya DiRado
DiRado is a versatile swimmer who has qualified for her first, as well as her last, Olympics. DiRado announced that she would retire from swimming after the Rio Games. In fact, she never planned on making it to Rio. She attempted to qualify for the Olympic team in both 2008 and ’12.

After she fell short of making the team four years ago, she thought that she would finish her swimming career at Stanford and graduate with a degree in management science and engineering. Her coach, Greg Meehan, encouraged her to keep on swimming and has helped her push through the challenging parts of training. After competing in the 200 and 400 IM and the 200 backstroke at the Rio Olympics, DiRado is set to work in Atlanta as a business analyst.

The 2016 Games in Rio will feature many familiar Olympic veterans. However, Rio will be the place for first-time Olympic swimmers to showcase their talents on the biggest stage in their sport. Be sure to tune in beginning this Saturday!

Photographs by Alex Menendez/Getty Images (Kalisz); Streeter Lecka/Getty Images (Baker); Tom Pennington/Getty Images (Weitzeil, DiRado)


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