It’s hard to say Tom Shields hadn’t already broken through as a big-league swimmer. The Cal Aquatics star was already recognized as one of the elite butterflyers in the nation, coming off a stellar college career with the Golden Bears and an appearance at the 2012 Short Course World Championships representing the U.S.
But Shields was still far from a fully-established international force heading into this summer, still carrying that deadly label swim fans love to put on highly-successful NCAA contenders: short-course specialist.
Shields, long renowned as one of the sport’s best underwater kickers, still had yet to prove he could compete in the Olympic sized pool, the venue that hosts World Championships and the Olympic Games. Long course swimming puts an emphasis on up-the-pool swimming, cutting underwaters in half. Prior to last week, it looked like a tall order for Shields to compete with the world’s best with his biggest weapon suddenly minimized.
But at U.S. Nationals, perhaps no one in the pool had a finer meet than the 23-year-old Shields, who blasted his way into the national elite in both butterfly races, taking home dual long course national titles.
Perhaps his most impressive swim was the 200 fly, which kicked off his meet on Wednesday. Shields swam one of the gutsiest races of nationals, going out in 54.22 to rocket away from the field. Though he was visibly hurting over the back 100, the butterflyer was able to shield his lead from a host of high-level contenders and hang on for the win in 1:55.09, a lifetime-best by well over two seconds.
Shields garnered the most headlines, of course, for his .01-second “upset” of GOAT Michael Phelps in the 100 fly two nights later. Somehow, Shields has always been tied to Phelps in his signature swims. In college, he tied Phelps’ short course American record in the 200 fly. At the Santa Clara Grand Prix a few weeks ago he tied Phelps for the 100 fly win on Phelps’ comeback tour. And as Shields rose to become the next big thing in American butterflying last Friday at nationals, he did it by holding off Phelps, finally breaking through for a win against the most decorated Olympian of all-time. What a better way to announce your arrival on the stage of the world’s elite?
It was a compelling breakthrough on many levels. Shields is one of the true “good guys” of swimming. He’s thoughtful and well-spoken, one of our favorite interviews here at the SwimSwam. He represents the new breed of swimmers continuing to train and compete after college careers have ended, and proves that graduation is hardly the end for swimmers looking to drop major time.
Now we’ll get to see him compete at Pan Pacs, and see if he can recapture the magic that surrounded his breakout nationals. He headlines a powerhouse American butterfly crew and comes in ranked 2nd and 3rd in the world ranks in the butterfly races. If he can further improve those seeds and pose a threat to challenging reigning world butterfly kind Chad le Clos down the road? Then we might have just witnessed the breakout moment of a truly HardCore career.
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