Swimmers describe the race as a snarling beast that will rob them of the energy needed for other endeavors. The greatest of all time, Michael Phelps, says he'll never swim it again. Too painful.
You'll hear no such talk, however, from Bel Air native Chase Kalisz. For the 20-year-old Kalisz, the 400-meter individual medley is "my baby."
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- Michael Phelps away from the pool [Pictures]
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Phelps will garner most of the attention Friday as he swims the 100-meter butterfly, his marquee race of the Phillips 66 National Championships. But if anything, his North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate Kalisz might be the pre-eminent performer in his Friday race, the beastly 400 IM.
Phelps has said Kalisz is the man to replace him as the country's best hope in the 400 IM. And Kalisz confirmed that at last summer's FINA World Championships, where he won a silver medal in the event. He'll try to consolidate his hold on the event at nationals.
It's not that Kalisz lacks respect for the difficulty of his favorite race. He'll tell you he hurts every time, pushing through the final 100 meters of freestyle. But from early on, it was the race that fit him.
"For a long time, it was the only race I was good at," he said.
That's no longer the case. Kalisz finished third in the 200-meter butterfly Wednesday, short of making the U.S. team for Pan Pacific Championships later this month but still impressive given he considered the stroke a weakness until recently. He didn't qualify for the final in the 200-meter breaststroke Thursday, though coach Bob Bowman described his preliminary swim as "OK."
Kalisz began swimming at Meadowbrook Aquatic Center when he was still in elementary school. Bowman invited him to join the elite training group, which then included Phelps and Allison Schmitt, when he was a student at Fallston High.
He was the precocious kid, nipping at Phelps' heels, always trying to beat the record-setting Olympian in a practice race or bragging about how he'd school Phelps when they whipped out the video game console to play "Call of Duty."
Phelps considers Kalisz the little brother he never had. Kalisz views the bond similarly.
"Michael can remember me spinning the rims on his Escalade when he first got it," he said.
Asked whether their relationship has evolved over the years, Bowman laughed and said, "I think Michael has a little more respect for his swimming."
Now that Phelps is back at Meadowbrook, training regularly, Kalisz seeks advice almost daily.
"I love watching Michael's races from the past," he said with a little kid's grin. "I might ask him how he felt during the 400 IM in the 2008 Olympics. I ask him every day. He'll run them down for me and give me more advice."
His other key relationship at Meadowbrook is with Bowman. Kalisz doesn't hesitate to give his coach credit for designing his successful path in the 400 IM. Bowman is known for training his best swimmers in every stroke and for pushing them to build endurance, even if they're sprinters by nature.
"We really put an equal emphasis on each stroke, which makes good IM swimmers," Bowman said. "I think he's just been brought up that way. He's pretty good in every stroke. He's not great in any stroke."
Bowman said it's especially fun to watch the evolution of a swimmer who's been at Meadowbrook since before puberty, an experience he also had with Phelps. Which is not to say he goes easy on Kalisz.
"He's hard on everyone," Kalisz said. "Practice is a very pressure-filled situation. If you go through practice every day like he wants you to, coming to practice is going to be more pressure than swimming a big race at nationals."
If anything, the pressure has escalated in the last 18 months, with elite swimmers such as Conor Dwyer and French gold medalist Yannick Agnel joining Bowman's training group along with the returning Phelps.
Kalisz spends much of his year at the University of Georgia, where he's a rising junior (he plans to take a year off to prepare for the 2016 Olympics). When he returned from school recently, the water in Mount Washington was suddenly full of gold medalists.
"It's not a bad training group," he said with a laugh. "Someone's out to get you every practice, and you're out to get someone. If you're not on top of it, you're going to be passed by everyone."
The team's power has been apparent at nationals, with NBAC swimmers contending in virtually every race.
Bowman sees Kalisz as a swimmer clearly on the ascent with the next Olympics approaching in Rio de Janeiro. "He's not close to what he can do," he said.
Phelps remains a beacon for all the young NBAC swimmers. His feats loom in the distance as Kalisz attempts to seize the mantle of 400 IM greatness.
"I can't really say I inherited it, because Michael's the best ever and the best ever in that event," Kalisz said. "He's once in a lifetime. I'm just trying to set my own path."