Leah Hayes is a competitive swimmer who represents the United States internationally. At the age of 16, she qualified for the 2022 World Championships in the 200 IM and went on to earn a bronze medal in the event, setting a Junior World Record in the process.
Hayes comes from an athletic family, her brother Carter, competed in multiple different sports and her mother, Jill, was a swimmer at Western Illinois University. When she started swimming at the age of 8 for the Fox Valley Park District Riptides, it was no surprise that she took to the water. By the age of 10, Hayes had already set multiple National Age Group Records and was recognized as a rising swimmer to watch.
At the age of 6, Hayes was diagnosed with alopecia universalis, which causes premature hair loss. Due to this, Hayes has become an advocate for the disease, notably swimming with a bald head and no swim cap at her competitions.
On October 27, 2022, Leah announced her verbal commitment to the University of Virginia. She was the #2 ranked high school girl in SwimSwam’s Top-20 of the Class of 2024.
Age Group Career
Hayes began her record-breaking spree at the age of 10 in July of 2016 when she broke Claire Tuggle’s 10 and under NAG record in the 200 freestyle (LCM) at the Illinois Age Group Long Course Championships with a time of 2:14.87. At the same meet, she also broke the 10 and under 50 freestyle NAG, setting the standard to 28.33. Less than a month later, Hayes also smashed Tuggle’s 10 and under record in the 100 freestyle (LCM) with a time of 1:01.29 and broke the 10 and under 50 breaststroke (LCM) NAG record with a time of 36.06. Concluding her 10 and under record breaking tare, Hayes broke Elizabeth Beisel’s NAG record in the LCM 200 IM with a time of 2:30.97.
For her performances, Hayes was named SwimSwam’s 2016 Age Group Swimmer of the Year for the 10 and Under age group.
Hayes showed promise in the 11-12 age group after aging up in October 2016. In 2018, she broke her first short course NAG record at the 2018 Illinois Swimming Age Group Championships when she swam a time of 1:02.63 in the 100 breaststroke. A few weeks later, she shattered Jenny Forster’s 11-12 NAG record in the 400 IM that was posted in 2001 with her time of 4:20.03.
Hayes’ performance led her to be named SwimSwam’s 2018 Age Group Swimmer of the Year for the 11-12 Age Group.
In late 2018 just after aging up to the 13-14 age group, Hayes was named Sports Illustrated’s 2018 SportsKid of the Year.
Hayes earned her first Olympic Trials cut in June 2019, swimming a time of 4:50.99 in the 400 IM. With her time, she became the youngest qualifier for the meet up to that point at only 13-years-old. A few weeks later, she added the Trials cut in the 200 IM with a time of 2:14.81, the 2nd fastest time in history in the 13-14 age group, coming within reach of Missy Franklin’s NAG record of 2:12.73.
2021 US Olympic Trials
At her first senior national level meet, the 2021 US Olympic Trials Wave II, Hayes competed in the 200 IM and the 400 IM.
In the 400 IM, Hayes swam a time of 4:44.55, setting a new personal best and making herself the 10th fastest 15-year-old of all-time.
Hayes advanced out of the prelims in the 200 IM, making it through to the semi-finals of the event. Though she did not advance to the final, Hayes posted a personal best of 2:12.89 to finish 10th overall, raking her 12th in 15-16 age-group history. For her performances at Trials, Hayes was named to her first US Junior National Team.
2022 US International Team Trials
A few weeks before the 2022 US International Team Trials, Hayes posted a personal best of 2:11.22 in prelims at the Pro Swim Series in Westmont. She came just .05 off of that time in finals to earn her first Pro Swim Series victory over a field of National Teamers and Olympians.
Upon arriving on deck at the International Team Trials, fans noted that Hayes was wearing a walking-boot. She told reporters that she had been dealing with a stress fracture in her foot in the weeks leading up to trials. The setback appeared to have a minimal impact on her first event as Hayes posted a personal best of 55.25 in the 100 freestyle.
The next morning, Hayes followed up her performance by dropping a 4:39.65 in the 400 IM, taking the top seed out of prelims and moving up to 5th all time in the 15-16 age-group. In the final, she placed 4th, coming in just off of her prelims time.
With momentum on her side, Hayes busted out a best time of 2:11.12 in the prelims of the 200 IM, setting herself up as the second seed for the final. She proceeded to shock the field in finals, slashing another second off of her best time to finish second in a time of 2:09.99, breaking the 15-16 NAG record and becoming the youngest American to ever go sub 2:10. With her swim, Hayes qualified for the 2022 World Championships alongside Virginia’s Alex Walsh, her first senior level international team.
Hayes’ performance at Trials earned her an honorable mention as SwimSwam’s Breakout Female Swimmer of the Meet.
2022 World Championships
At her first World Championships, Hayes entered a crowded field in the women’s 200 IM, the very first event of the entire meet. Alongside Alex Walsh, Hayes provided an excellent start for Team USA, as the pair went 1-2 in the 200 IM prelims. With her time, Hayes set a new personal best of 2:09.81, re-breaking her NAG record. The pair advanced through the semi-finals without issue, setting themselves up for a tight battle with Australian Kaylee McKeown in the final.
In the final, Hayes stuck right with McKeown as Walsh swam in her own territory. With her American teammate taking first, Hayes battled McKeown down the stretch, ultimately touching third overall to earn a bronze medal. Hayes shattered her best time, set hours before, with her performance to finish in a time of 2:08.81, breaking the World Junior Record. The time also made Hayes the fastest 18-and-under US performer of all-time at only 16-years-old.
For her swim, Hayes was named SwimSwam’s World Championships Breakout Swimmer of the Meet on the women’s side.