Gretchen Walsh breaks world record, then nearly does it again to lock up Olympic spot

INDIANAPOLIS — The U.S. Olympic swimming trials are unforgiving, a grueling test of time and distance where first place goes to Paris, and second place too, but third? Third place goes home.

On Saturday, Gretchen Walsh, a 21-year-old University of Virginia standout, surprised herself and just about everyone else when she broke the nearly eight-year-old world record in the women’s 100-meter butterfly — in the semifinals.

Which meant that come Sunday, in the loaded final of the same race, Walsh had to either out-do or come close to matching that performance, or risk perhaps failing to make the Olympic team at all in that event. Nothing was guaranteed. Everything was up in the air.

So she went out and nearly did it again. Walsh won the 100 butterfly with a time just a sliver of a fingernail off her new world record of 55.18 seconds — 55.31 seconds — to hold off 2021 Olympian and former U.S. record holder Torri Huske, who finished second in 55.52, her fastest time ever. Both Walsh and Huske will go to Paris in this event.

Gretchen Walsh breaks world record, then nearly does it again to lock up Olympic spot

“I was definitely nervous,” Walsh said. “I just had a lot of what-ifs going through my head of just being like coming off of breaking a world record, and then thinking I need to do that again or I might miss the team and what if I get third and what would that even look like?

“Going into this meet, I don’t think people had many expectations for me and last night kind of set a lot and so I had a talk with my confidence coach today. We were saying, all I had to do was execute.”

Huske, 21, who is taking a gap year from Stanford to train for the Olympics, would have been in all the headlines but for Walsh’s breakout performance. Her time of 55.52 makes her the third-fastest woman in history in the 100 fly, behind only Walsh and former world record holder Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden.

“That’s the same as how it was at the Olympics (in 2021), really fast,” Huske said. “Competition just brings out the best in you. That was my best time and I was just really excited to get up and race.”

In 2021, Huske won an Olympic silver medal in the women’s 4x100 medley relay while finishing fourth in the 100 butterfly after appearing to take the lead not far from the finish.

“Last time, when I first made the Olympics, I was kind of in awe the whole time,” she said. “It felt very unreal. The whole time I just felt like I could’t believe that I was even there. Now, this time, having that experience under my belt, I know what to expect. I know this isn’t the end. We still have more to come and I think having that mentality and moving forward, that will hopefully give me an advantage in the Olympics this time and I’ll just be able to do better than I did.”

Regan Smith, 22, was the odd woman out in this lightning quick race in third place with a time of 55.62 seconds, which made her the fifth fastest woman ever in this event. But because only two swimmers are allowed from each nation, Smith cannot go in this event, even though she could have medaled.

Smith, who won two silver medals and a bronze in Tokyo three years ago, still has other opportunities to make the Olympic team here this week. But for now, for her, no matter how fast she was, what was left Sunday night was the sting of being third.

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