2021 U.S. Olympic Trials Previews: Foster Looking To Bump Returning 400 IMers

See all of our U.S. Olympic Trials previews & picks here.

2021 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials

Men’s 400 IM

  • World record: Michael Phelps (USA) – 4:03.84 (2008)
  • American record: Michael Phelps – 4:03.84 (2008)
  • U.S. Open record: Michael Phelps – 4:05.25 (2008)
  • World Junior record: Ilya Borodin (RUS) – 4:11.17 (2021)
  • 2016 Olympic Champion: Kosuke Hagino (JPN) – 4:06.05
  • 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Champion: Chase Kalisz – 4:09.54
  • Wave I Cut: 4:25.99
  • Wave II Cut: 4:23.24

Jay Litherland and Chase Kalisz at 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials (Courtesy: Tim Binning)

At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, 22-year-old NBAC protegeé Chase Kalisz stole the show easily punching his ticket to his first Olympics at 4:09.54. Behind Kalisz, 31-year-old defending Olympic champion Ryan Lochte got run down by 20-year-old UGA Bulldog Jay Litherland for the second spot on the Olympic team. At the Games, Kalisz settled for a silver medal at 4:06.75 behind Japan’s Kosuke Hagino. Then, at the 2017 World Championships and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, Kalisz sealed back-to-back event titles on major international stages with efforts of 4:05.90 and 4:07.95.

But Kalisz has cooled down some since that dominant run. At the 2019 championships in Gwangju, Kalisz placed 10th in prelims and failed to advance into the final and defend his 2017 title. After placing third in prelims, all eyes were on Litherland to give Team USA another IM World medal. With his best finishing efforts, Litherland took a tight runner-up finish behind Japan’s Daiya Seto, 4:08.95 to 4:09.22.

Carson Foster, Bobby Finke, Jake Foster at 2019 U.S. Nationals (Courtesy: Jack Spitser)

Even as Litherland overtook Kalisz as the top-finishing American on the international stage, up-and-coming talents were rising in domestic competition.

Shortly following 2019 Worlds, 17-year-old Carson Foster had his senior national breakout at that year’s US National meet, leading the men’s 400 IM final heading into the breaststroke. During the freestyle leg, Florida distance ace Bobby Finke propelled towards Foster, catching him under the flags to nab the national title at 4:13.15. Foster settled for second with a then-World junior record of 4:13.39. Texas Longhorn to-be Jake Foster placed third behind brother C. Foster and Finke at 4:15.03 in a tight race ahead of rising Florida sophomore Kieran Smith (4:15.17) and rising Cal junior Sean Grieshop (4:15.50). Meanwhile, Charlie Swanson put up the second-fastest American time of 4:11.46 to win the 2019 Pan Am title in Lima.

Kieran Smith, 2021 Men’s 200 FR NCAA Champion (Courtesy: NCAA Photos)

Entering the 2019-2020 season, Foster and Finke had solidified themselves as heavyweight matches against Rio Olympic event representatives Kalisz and Litherland. At the 2019 U.S. Open in Atlanta, Kalisz swam beside fly/back specialist Foster during the 400 IM championship final, putting himself in position to take over the lead heading into his best stroke. Following the breaststroke, Kalisz had the 3+ second lead over Foster, sealing the U.S. Open title at 4:13.07. Foster settled for second place at 4:14.76, almost four seconds faster than third-place finisher Litherland (4:18.58). Finishing in fourth place was Lochte at 4:19.72, holding off the most recent U.S. national champion, Finke (4:20.84).

Sean Grieshop at 2021 Pro Swim Series – Mission Viejo (photo: Jack Spitser)

One year and a pandemic later, the world hit the reset button entered Olympic year 2.0 in preparations for the Tokyo 2021. During the first-ever virtual U.S. Open meet across the country, now-Texas freshman C. Foster put up the top time of 4:16.51, kick-starting his Olympic qualification potential. Florida junior Finke, who beat C. Foster for the 2019 national title, picked up a runner-up finish at 4:18.08.

At the first meet of the 2021 Pro Swim Series, Kalisz put up his first LCM time of the season at 4:17.26, momentarily ranking second behind C. Foster in the nation. Fast forward PSS Mission Viejo, former world junior record-holder Grieshop then swam the top US time this season at 4:16.14.

US Men’s 400 IM Rankings (since 9/1/2020)

Rank Swimmer Time Meet
1 Chase Kalisz 4:13.64 2021 Atlanta Classic
2 Carson Foster 4:13.79 2021 TXLA LC Kick Off
3 Jay Litherland 4:14.94 2021 Atlanta Classic
4 Sean Grieshop 4:16.14 2021 PSS Mission Viejo
5 Jake Foster 4:17.04 2021 TXLA LC Kick Off
6 Bobby Finke 4:17.36 2021 Atlanta Classic
7 Charlie Swanson 4:19.43 2021 PSS Mission Viejo
8 Grant Sanders 4:20.98 2021 PSS Mission Viejo
9 Kevin Vargas 4:21.03 2020 U.S. Open
10 Ryan Lochte 4:21.14 2021 Atlanta Classic
11 Sam Stewart 4:21.27 2021 TAC Titans LC Premier
12 Kieran Smith 4:22.00 2021 UANA Tokyo Qualifer

Following this week’s finals session at the 2021 Atlanta Classic, Chase Kalisz moved up to No. 1 in the US rankings by 0.15s ahead of Carson Foster while Jay Litherland shifted to No. 3 at 4:14.94. Meanwhile. Jake Foster‘s season best of 4:17.04 from TXLA’s LC Kick Off currently is 0.32s ahead of Bobby Finke‘s 4:17.36 Atlanta swim.

Behind Florida Gators Grant Sanders and Kevin Vargas is Ryan Lochte‘s 4:21.14 prelims swim from the 2021 Atlanta Classic, ahead of former Texas Longhorn Sam Stewart, who swam 4:21.27 at the TAC Titans’ LC Premier Meet. At the 2020 Cary Sectionals in March of last year, Stewart put up a big 4:16.74, which ranks 9th on the predicted Wave II psych sheet behind 2019 World Junior team member Jason Louser (4:16.66). NCAA 200 free champion Kieran Smith sits in 12th at 4:22.00.

2021 Trials Prediction

Looking at the potential Trials finals from a bird’s eye view, C. Foster will most likely be in the lead pack during the fly/back portion of the race. Kalisz has the strongest breaststroke of the entire field, yet has been spotted with the front-half lead pack in competitive finals. Meanwhile, Litherland’s lethal freestyle has earned him his first Olympic berth and World silver medal. Grieshop and Finke have equally strong freestyle legs while J. Foster and Swanson are known breaststrokers.

Sanders and Vargas both are part of Florida’s top-tier distance training program, yet Smith is the No. 1 American in the 400 free this season. At the same time, fellow Gator Finke is the No. 1 seed in the 800/1500 free on the predicted Wave II psych sheets and the No. 4 seed in the 400 free. The men’s 400 free and 400 IM finals fall in the same session, and are only separated by the women’s 100 fly semi-finals, leaving Smith and Finke with some potential finals decisions.

The outcome of this race could very well take many different paths. One outcome is resembling the finish at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials final between Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and Tyler Clary. During the race, the trio were clearly neck-and-neck through the front-half of the race. However, Phelps’ and Lochte’s massive IM racing experience gave them the advantage over fly/backer Clary. At the finish, ’04 and ’08 Olympic representatives Phelps and Lochte sealed their 3rd 1-2 finish at Trials. Despite this, Clary was able to earn his first Olympic berth in two events: 200 fly and 200 back, where he won Olympic gold.

C. Foster could very well be in the same position as Clary against veterans Kalisz and Litherland. While Litherland’s desperation allowed him to surge past Lochte in 2016, C. Foster will have to switch on a different gear on the freestyle leg if he were to break up Kalisz/Litherland.

Top 8 Picks:

Men’s 400 IM
Place Swimmer Lifetime Best Season Best
1 Jay Litherland 4:09.22 4:14.94
2 Chase Kalisz 4:05.90 4:13.64
3 Carson Foster 4:13.39 4:13.79
4 Bobby Finke 4:13.15 4:17.36
5 Sean Grieshop 4:13.90 4:16.14
6 Charlie Swanson 4:11.46 4:19.43
7 Jake Foster 4:15.03 4:17.04
8 Grant Sanders 4:18.28 4:20.98

Wave I Standout: Kyle Ponsler (FAST) — At the 2020 U.S. Open, 17-year-old Ponsler hit his first Wave I cut at 4:23.83. Later at the 2021 Combined Indiana Speedo Sectionals, Ponsler improved his second Wave I cut in the 200 back at 2:02.32. At the same meet, Ponsler hit 4:24.68 to remain at the Wave I standard. The Wave II cut sits at 4:23.24, roughly six-tenths off of Ponsler’s qualifying time. Knowing that Ponsler has a strong backstroke and that he owns SCY IM bests of 1:47.18/3:50.03, he looks to be one of the best candidates to move on to the Wave II meet.

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6 months ago

If Carson can break a 4:10, then he has a chance for top 2.

A lot depends on the free. Litherland counts on his free leg to play catch-up or pass people.

6 months ago

I think this is Carson’s best shot. I think he has a huge drop incoming in this event, but I just don’t know what Kalisz will do. Finke had a huge drop in yards and has looked great in this event LC this season. And won the 2019 National Title over Foster, too.

Last edited 6 months ago by wow
Reply to  wow
6 months ago

Carson has a 1.32 200 free, so I’m hoping he can also finish strong. He seems to have potential for one of the biggest drops.

This race should be really fun to watch, as a lot of guys have a reasonable shot.

The Original Tim
6 months ago

One correction–Lochte swam a 4:21.14 in prelims at Atlanta and scratched finals, bumping Sam Stewart for the 10th fastest time this season.

6 months ago

The #2 spot is a tossup but I definitely see Kalisz as a strong top pick for making the team. Very hard to imagine him missing it.

Marcy Spann
6 months ago

i’m cheering for the absolute underdog jay litherland, y’all sleep on him sometimes but i think he proved us all at worlds 2019 that he is a 400 IM stud

Mark Nedza
6 months ago

Got to go with the Dawgs!

Casas 100 back gold in Tokyo
6 months ago

simply yes.

6 months ago

I would love to see Kieran Smith race this event, although he probably won’t…he’s got a much stronger chance in the 400 free and it would be virtually impossible to double those two events (especially on Day 1…could hurt the rest of his meet).

Reply to  Thomas
6 months ago

It’s more likely he does the 200 im to try for a 3rd event

Reply to  Bub
6 months ago

he can do the 200 /400/800 free triple
that his best chance to qualify in all 3 in my opinion

Reply to  anonymous
6 months ago

800 seems a bit far for Kieran.

About Nick Pecoraro

Nick Pecoraro

Nick Pecoraro started swimming at age 11, instantly becoming drawn to the sport. He was a breaststroker and IMer when competing. After joining SwimSwam, the site has become an outlet for him to research and learn about competitive swimming and experience the sport through a new lenses. He graduated in …

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