Column: Gretchen Walsh Proved She Was Worth All The Hype

Note: Opinions in this article don’t reflect the views of SwimSwam as a whole.

Sarah Sjostrom‘s world record in the 100 butterfly came under greater threat than ever in the finals of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, when Canada’s Maggie MacNeil (55.59), China’s Zhang Yufei (55.64), Australia’s Emma McKeon (55.72) and the United States’ Torri Huske (55.73) all came within 0.25 seconds of Sjostrom’s 55.48 mark. Then, all throughout the Paris Olympic cycle, the question was always: “which one of these swimmers will get to Sjostrom’s world record first?”

So who would have thought, that after all these years, the person to take down Sjostrom’s record would be someone that didn’t even qualify for the Tokyo Olympics?

When Gretchen Walsh touched the wall in exactly 55.18 seconds to shatter Sjostrom’s world record, she immediately shut down most of the current discourse surrounding her name — yes, all of it, dating back to when she was 16 years old and first got on the American swimming radar. Her performance was truly one of the biggest “gotcha” moments in recent swimming history.

Prior to that moment, Walsh’s career was debated and analyzed by those who believed she could escalate to new heights, and those who thought the buzz around her name wasn’t justified.

First it was the concern that Walsh couldn’t perform at international team trials, which stemmed from her early long course struggles. After posting a promising time of 53.74 at the 2019 World Junior Championships as a 16-year-old, she failed to break 54 seconds for the next three years, missing qualification for the 2021 U.S. Olympic team and 2022 World Championships after being expected to make both teams. 2022 was also the year that Australia’s Mollie O’Callaghan became the best 100 freestyler in the world, and memories of her placing fourth to Walsh at 2019 World Juniors resurfaced. Along with that came discussions about peaking at the right time.

Once Walsh qualified for her first senior international team in 2023 and fought through her trials cobwebs, the conversation shifted toward whether she’d be capable of translating her collegiate success onto the international stage. Because of course after 2023 Worlds, Walsh went on to have one of the greatest single-season performances in NCAA swimming history. During her junior season at the University of Virginia, she broke four individual NCAA records and completely refined what was possible in women’s collegiate swimming — becoming the first to break 48 seconds in the 100 fly, the first to break 45 in the 100 free, and the first to break 20 in a 50 free relay split.

Walsh’s performance was one that, fairly enough, garnered a lot of hype surrounding what she could do in the future — just like the hype around her when she was a sixteen year old wining gold medals at World Juniors.

However, in an Olympic year, Walsh’s NCAA performances were also clouded by critics who thought she wouldn’t replicate her success in long course. There was some merit to that concern — one of Walsh’s biggest strengths in short course was her underwaters, which don’t hold the same value in the big pool. Every time she put up a time, the conversation was not able what she did, but whether she was capable of better.

So after all that, Walsh’s 100 fly felt like a statement, one that proved that she was capable of the best-case scenario to her career. After enduring five years of both hype-fueled future projections and “bathtub pool swimmer” jeers from the crowd, she showed that she was worth all the hype and more.

Surely enough, there will be more discourse tied to Walsh’s name in the future, and more expectations about her performance. But for now, let’s put things in perspective: she’s the fastest woman in history, and took down the world record of one of the greatest female sprinters ever. That’s remarkable enough.

Walsh still has to qualify for the Olympics in finals Sunday night, and after that, she’ll be expected to replicate a similar top performance in Paris. Regardless of what happens next though, she’s shown us what she can do after all those years, and that’s becoming the fastest in history.

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Andy Hardt
29 days ago

I like the article. Good comments too, although some of them feel a bit revisionist. There was a ton of doubt on Walsh in long course, which got erased over the last few months (gradually, then suddenly). I felt my opinion was middle of the road, but 6 months ago I would have considered 56.18 a success for Walsh, never mind 55.18. Anyone whose response to this article is “Why are you making such a big deal about this? It’s obvious from her past performances”, go back and read the comments on Walsh the past couple of years.

Same if your reaction is “Don’t get ahead of yourself; it’s a long meet”. Admittedly, I am posting this comment after the… Read more »

HOO love
29 days ago

I love UVA. So proud to cheer for these amazing athletes and SEE A WORLD RECORD IN PERSON🤯

29 days ago

Let’s see what G Bomb does tonight, The thing that the intl’s don’t get is how much physically and psychologically stronger she is now over 1 year ago. And it’s showing as she is dropping times big time in everything she swims. I think perhaps 7 of her last 8 swims in competition contained records. She’s dropping, consistently.

Absent the breast stroke, she is arguably the US’s top swimmer in everything up to 200. There are legit arguments about the 200 free as there are some other starts, but she gave a hint at the ACC’s where she destroyed through hardly ever swimming it.

Aragon Son of Arathorne
29 days ago

Gretchen is clearly more muscular than last year. Bodes well for the next few years. With last nights momentum, she and DeSorbo’s team will do very well.

29 days ago

Can’t wait to see what she will do in the 50 and 100 free. Hopefully, we see this excellence repeated in those events.

Philip Johnson
29 days ago

As a Walsh fan, let’s calm down a little and focus on her just making the team right now. She isn’t a “female Dressel” or going to break a WR every time she enters the pool. Let’s enjoy the WR, but right now it is making the team.

Reply to  Philip Johnson
29 days ago

I was at your glass house a few weeks ago.

29 days ago

The grandstanding from Americans that the Walsh swim somehow validates every single yards swimmer is just silly, obviously the majority recognise the merits of swimmers like Dressel, Douglass and Walsh can translate from both. It’s the swimmers like Dean Farris who was the fastest 200 yard Freestyler ever and his best LC was like 1:48, or Luca Urlando bouncing 60 yards between walls underwater for the ncaa record in the 100 yard Backstroke having never touched the event LC.

Reply to  DK99
29 days ago

Farris’s 200m LC best is 1:46.45. Also keep in mind that 200 yards is a little bit shorter than 200m. In long course he was probably better in the 100 free. His pb is a 48.07. If you can go a 48 flat 100 free in the big pool you’re hardly a bathtub swimmer.

Trials Countdown
29 days ago

Not sure I understand this article. The Walsh sisters have been top talents since young age groupers. When they went to college they were can’t miss prospects and well they didn’t miss. The World record last night was amazing but it doesn’t guarantee anything as winning tonight and 6 weeks from now is another journey. The world record might not even last through tonight.

Aragon Son of Arathorne
Reply to  Trials Countdown
29 days ago

this is true, but the takeaway is that G walsh is not hype in the big pool. I don’t see Torre going under 55.18, either.

Paris, who knows. Maggie is really fast but I believe Gretchen has the size advantage which makes her dps better. Plus her undies work to her advantage off that start and turn which is important. G walsh has clearly put on muscle and is figuring the long pool out every time she gets in.

About Yanyan Li

Yanyan Li

Although Yanyan wasn't the greatest competitive swimmer, she learned more about the sport of swimming by being her high school swim team's manager for four years. She eventually ventured into the realm of writing and joined SwimSwam in January 2022, where she hopes to contribute to and learn more about …

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