What Carson Foster Teaches Us About Promise, Expectation, And The “Phelps Generation”

Yanyan Li
by Yanyan Li 168

February 20th, 2024 National, News, Opinion

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

There aren’t many active swimmers in the world who have had as many “oh-so-close” moments as Carson Foster.

Foster’s career trajectory is well-known swimming lore now. He started his career as a child phenom, breaking national age group records when he was as young as ten years old. At age 16, like many other talented teenage male swimmers, his name began getting spoken in the same breath as Michael Phelps after he broke Phelps’s 15-16 NAG in the 400 IM. He won World Junior titles and quickly rose to become the top recruit in his class, committing to Texas. He decided to graduate high school early to prepare for the Olympic games, with many believing that he had a shot at qualifying for Tokyo.

When Foster entered college, his kingdom of promise began to crumble. He clocked a 3:35.27 400-yard IM in one of his first-ever collegiate races (which at that time, made him the #2 performer of all-time) but then added considerable time and faded in the closing leg racing the event at the 2021 NCAA Championships, blowing a lead to Florida’s Bobby Finke even though his personal best would have won. This was a precursor to what would happen at the Olympic trials, where he headed into the final 100 meters of the 400 IM in the lead but got run down by Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland on the home stretch, missing Tokyo by a hair. To rub more salt in the wound, he later ended up posting a 400 IM time that would have won at the Olympics by nearly a second.

Following Foster’s early mishaps as a college, a narrative that he couldn’t swim fast at the right moments developed. That was quickly disproven though, as he qualified for his first World Championships in the summer of his sophomore year and claimed two silver medals in personal best fashion — in fact, his 400 IM time (4:06.56) makes him the #8 performer ever. In a sense, he did live up to his age group hype, becoming one of America’s top swimmers in the 200/400 IM, 200/400 free, 200 back, and 200 fly while his yards times also improved. However, a new problem emerged: there was a guy who was better than him.

Like Foster, France’s Leon Marchand was a 400 IM specialist who also excelled in 200 stroke events. Like Foster, he got the Phelps comparisons — and although he wasn’t American, his connection to Phelps may have been even stronger considering that they shared the same coach in Bob Bowman. But unlike Foster, Marchand won on the biggest stage. He defeated Foster in the four times they faced off at the NCAA Championships and in the five times they raced in the World Championships. One of those times came when Marchand broke Phelps’s world record in the 400 IM, and afterward, the two swimmers were atop the medal podium together while Foster stood to the side.

Oh, and the 400 IM world record was held by an American for 29 years before Marchand broke it.

Foster clearly still has that fire in him — he gave back his college scholarship and finished his NCAA career early (without an individual championship to his name) to go all-in on the Olympics. He opted to swim at the 2024 World Championships, where he failed to win an individual title but still stepped up big-time on relays to help Team USA earn medals. But his mishaps at Worlds made me think about his overall career pathway and the bigger picture surrounding people like him.

The sad reality is that we hype up so many young swimmers as ‘”generational talents,” but there’s only little room at the top when those swimmers get older. This especially holds for American swimmers, who are widely covered throughout their childhoods (and a lot of this has to do with American swimmers being more accessible from a media perspective) and get their accomplishments measured through the eons of NAGs available to be broken. Many grow up to get upstaged by international swimmers who seemingly “come from nowhere,” but the reality is that they just didn’t get the same level of exposure. We fall victim to a recognition heuristic — we favor the more well-known swimmers until suddenly they aren’t anymore.

The story of age group phenoms who are struggling to win gold on a senior level right now doesn’t apply to just Foster — it’s the story of swimmers like Michael Andrew, Regan Smith, and many others. But I can’t help but feel like it stings more when you’re an American male who grew up watching Phelps and swimming the same events as Phelps (Luca Urlando is in a slightly similar situation right now), in a time where there’s pressure on Team USA to find its “next Phelps.” And especially when the athlete you’re constantly being beaten by has a stronger Phelps narrative than you and is preventing you from reaching the top. And this isn’t supposed to paint Marchand as a villain, it’s just that out of the hundreds of talented young swimmers who dream of following the footsteps of the G.O.A.T, only a handful can make that dream a reality.

Winning silver medals shouldn’t be seen as some sort of failure, as gold is such a rare phenomenon in swimming. And yet, the endless winning culture in American swimming makes it seem like a prerequisite.

Now, I don’t want to make this story a pity piece on Foster. Sure, he’s in a tricky spot in his career where it seems like he’s stuck in this eternal bridesmaid status, and there’s not much pointing in favor of him defeating Marchand or other gold medal contenders this summer — even though six of the last seven Olympic gold medalists in the men’s 400 IM were American. But we are still five months out from Paris, and the Olympics are the March Madness of swimming in the sense that anything can happen.

My point isn’t to debate Foster’s chances, though. His recent World Championships struggles just reminded me of the emotional weight that built up throughout his career that will inevitably peak this summer, whether that be so-called “mental blocks,” Phelpsian expectations, and rivalries that keep on swinging in favor of one person. It’s especially important to note this when the American men are still held firmly in Phelps’s grip after his retirement, where he’s the standard that everyone is still compared to but most won’t ever come remotely close to reaching. This is emphasized a thousand times more right now when the Americans are entering Paris with a team that will likely have limited gold medal opportunities.

Could the “what could have been” in Foster’s life story get answered this summer? Possibly. But right now, his career (which can still be considered extremely successful regardless of what he does in Paris) serves as a reflection on the ideas of expectation, promise, role models, and gold being viewed as an end-all-be-all in American swimming. After all, they don’t say it’s lonely at the top for no reason.

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JonathanNC
1 month ago

This has been a great discussion, one of the best I recall, on all sides. I’ve always liked the “Carson Foster calm” demeanor, and that probably subconsciously enhances my respect for his athletic talent.

But for all the disappointment I felt as I agonized over the second half of his Doha IM races, I remember thinking this: “Keep going out hard – when you hit your taper (in Paris, I hope), you’ll have the best swims of your life.” I do worry about his heavy schedule, though. But what do I know; he and coaches don’t need my input. Either way, for the record, he has already done enough for me to think of him as a great American talent.

SteveT
1 month ago

Like Lochte, who was born at the wrong time, so was Foster. He will compete very well in Paris, I believe, but he’s gonna be swimming next to the real generational talent….

JoeB
1 month ago

Comparison is the thief of joy.

Astur
1 month ago

What about the men sub-20 generation? who will make the Olympic team? Thomas Heilman in the 200 fly. Will Kaii Winkler make the team in 100 free (relay), will Maximus Williamson make it?

Australia Kings
1 month ago

Phelps was already the GOAT by the age of 22. He established this at the 2007 Worlds in Melbourne I remember being there. Carson Foster is 22 right now, what has he done? How old was Dressell during the Tokyo games? Marchand is 21 now and he is only making for himself and hasn’t done anything in the Olympics yet. Only Ian Thorpe and Phelps lived to their hype.

Astur
Reply to  Australia Kings
1 month ago

Marchand was too young in Tokyo, he can win the 200 & 400 IM and 200 fly in Paris (I understand that Milak has not resumed training yet).

snailSpace
Reply to  Astur
1 month ago

Milak has indeed resumed training about a month ago, and is already showing promising form in training according to Hungarian media.

Astur
Reply to  snailSpace
1 month ago

Thanks for the update. Will he be able to catch-up and be ready for 200 fly gold in Paris? He lost 6 months of training.

snailSpace
Reply to  Astur
1 month ago

Who knows at this point.

On one hand, his training has been hindered during both his 2021 and 2022 training cycles for quite some time, and both times he bounced back quickly.
On the other hand, this time he missed more training and most of his problems are of the mental nature in the first place, soo… who knows.
He never had problem performing his best once he is actually competing, so it’s gonna be a question of wether or not his current best is enough to win in Paris, assuming he makes it to the Olympics.

bigNowhere
Reply to  Australia Kings
1 month ago

I think the cause and effect go in the other direction. Phelps and Thorpe got massive hype BECAUSE they were setting LCM world records at 15-16 years old.

I don’t think 16-year-old Foster got anywhere near the kind of hype that 16-year-old Phelps got. His “hype”, to the extent that he had it, was mostly speculative, in internet comment sections, etc.

There is “swimming famous” and there is “FAMOUS famous”. Foster was just swimming famous. Phelps was FAMOUS.

Pan Fan
Reply to  bigNowhere
1 month ago

And also, Thorpe and Phelps became World Champion at 15 and 16 respectively.

No male swimmer became world champion at 15/16 ever since, not even Marchand.

Meanwhile, there have been several women that became world or Olympic champion at the age of 15.

tea rex
1 month ago

Below, a few reasons to think we haven’t seen Carson Foster’s best results. But of course, if we have seen his peak, he’s had a fantastic career already! Pause for a moment to think how hard winning a World Champs medal is.

  • Foster could have a faster backhalf than we have seen. His breaststroke is actually really GOOD, his freestyle is world class – he has time to drop if focuses on a complete IM.
  • Unlike Marchand, Foster is better at long course than short course. Training for NCAAs wasn’t playing to his strengths.
  • Lots of stars have underperformed at the Olympics – Marchand is eligible for that too. Or, Marchand could slay in Paris, and lose
… Read more »

Anonymous
Reply to  tea rex
1 month ago

He does have strength and speed training. Maybe his whole focus was to throw down a 100 free and 200 free on relay to establish his bid for those events on Olympic team. He definitely did not tolerate swimming prelims, semi, finals format in the IM’s for some reason.

Pete pfaff
1 month ago

Back in 1968 there was a guy named Hall that all he did was finish behind Mark Spitz.

Krissy Mac
Reply to  Pete pfaff
1 month ago

I believe it was Jerry Heidenreich

bigNowhere
1 month ago

I think a lot of people forget (or perhaps are young enough that they wouldn’t know) how far ahead of his peers Phelps was. Also, the Phelps of age 14 was not the Phelps of age 10. At age 10, he was setting NAGs but there were other kids his age that were also setting them. He was really good, but he hadn’t yet exploded.

He became PHELPS (roughly) as a 14 year old. I first became aware of him reading his results from US nationals in spring of 2000. The previous NAG for 13-14 boys was around 2:05. It was held (I think) by Filiberto Colon. It was actually a pretty old record; Colon had been a 1984 Olympian,… Read more »

bigNowhere
Reply to  bigNowhere
1 month ago

Edited to add: I meant to say that the specific record I’m referring to is the 13-14 LCM 200 fly NAG.

While it serves as a good example, there are others from Phelps’s career like this. Look at how much he lowered records like the 400IM (4:11 to 4:03), the 200IM (1:58 to 1:54), the 200 fly (1:55 to 1:51). These are pretty huge chunks of time.

Like the Colon 200 fly NAG, the pre-Phelps 200IM WR (1:58 by Jani Sievenin) was also considered really hard to break and had stood for (I think) 8 years. And Phelps eventually lowered it by 4 seconds.

When someone is this much ahead of everybody else, they have a lot of margin for… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by bigNowhere
LBSWIM
Reply to  bigNowhere
1 month ago

Side topic. I find it interesting a 14 year old 2:05 200 fly for a man would be considered untouchable, when a 15 year woman (Mary T) is going 2:06/2:07. I’m not saying it was untrue, but more surprised by such a statement.

OldNotDead
Reply to  LBSWIM
1 month ago

Mary T went 2:07.01 WR as a 14 year old in 1979 at LC Nationals.

bigNowhere
Reply to  LBSWIM
1 month ago

Yes, that is interesting.

All I can say to that is (1) men mature much later than women ( and at age 14, I wouldn’t call that person a “man” yet) and (2) (as we all know) Mary T was an extreme outlier.

Also (3) times are so much faster now than they were in the late-70s/early-80s. Only a handful male swimmers were getting under 2:00 in the LCM fly back then.

At the 1984 Olympics only the top 6 swimmers were under 2:00, for example.

At the 1980 Olympics, only one swimmer got under 2:00.

In 1976, it was faster than 1980, but still only 3 swimmers were under.

That’s the context of Colon’s NAG swim. At the 1984… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by bigNowhere
Pan Fan
Reply to  bigNowhere
1 month ago

Phelps doesn’t hold 200 IM record.

Lochte does.

bigNowhere
Reply to  Pan Fan
1 month ago

I am aware of that. That isn’t the point. Phelps broke Sievenen’s (sp?) record, and then lowered it seven more times, taking it from 1:58.16 down to 1:54.23.

Lochte lowered it twice, to 1:54.10 and then 1:54.00.

Based on my argument, this would suggest that Phelps is the generational talent and Lochte is not.

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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