Alex Walsh by Mike Lewis

No matter what happens in Tokyo, Nashvillian Alex Walsh is already part of history.

Swimming the 200-meter individual medley during swimming’s U.S. Olympics Trials in Omaha, Neb., in May, Walsh — member of Nashville Aquatic Club, a Harpeth Hall alumna and rising sophomore at the University of Virginia — was part of one of the closest finishes in Olympics-qualifying history. Walsh touched the wall at 2:09.30. Cavaliers teammate Katie Douglass was two-hundredths of a second behind her. Both automatically qualified for this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo, so taken at face value, there’s not much drama there.

But spare a thought for Madisyn Cox, who finished third and thus doesn’t get an automatic bid. She was two-hundredths of a second behind Douglass. Between first and third, just four-hundredths of a second, an incomprehensibly small margin.

After a grueling race that encompasses all four of swimming’s racing strokes — the exhaustion of butterfly, the exacting backstroke, the grace of breaststroke and the all-out speed of freestyle — it came down to the edge of a fingernail.

And if there was a little extra push for Walsh, it’s because she had plenty of help. In a post-race interview, she said she was happy she was alongside Douglass in the water, as the two are training partners. She’d gotten a boost of confidence from her father Robert before the semifinals.

“I was really nervous for semifinals, honestly more than I was for the finals, and I remember I was in my room and I was really upset and my dad came in,” Walsh told reporters at a press conference. “He was like, ‘This is your race, you do this all the time, you’re so good at this, just go out there and just leave it in the pool. It’s only semis, all you have to do is final.’ So that made me feel a lot more confident, and obviously yeah, I just wanted to put myself in a good position for the final. And so I think getting the best time, I was really happy with that, and then putting myself as the top seed made my confidence go up a lot, and really my approach going into the finals was like, ‘I just have to go fast from the get-go and just leave it in the pool.’ And I think I did that. It hurt really badly at the end.”

Walsh “hurt really badly” because contrary to pretty much every other individual-medley swimmer on earth, her strategy was to go fast in butterfly, by and large swimming’s toughest stroke, cruelly placed by the swimming gods as the first leg of the I.M. If Walsh has a weak stroke — and anybody who is qualifying for the Olympics in the medley doesn’t really have one of those — it’s fly. The strategy paid off, with Walsh posting the third-best time in the world in 2021 in the event.

Maybe she ran the idea by her mom, Glynis, herself a successful college swimmer. Or maybe she ran it by her sister, Gretchen, a recent Harpeth Hall graduate joining her sister in Charlottesville next year. Gretchen was in Omaha looking for an Olympics spot herself, though she missed the team.

Swimming is one of those sports that all but the most die-hard fans ignore between Olympics (when everyone becomes an expert). But for those hardcore followers in Tennessee, Alex is well-known. She started setting age-group records at 12, when she was already swimming better times than her mom ever swam. She was the state’s swimming MVP all four years as a Honey Bear. She’s cracked the top-three all-time best times at UVA in four events her freshman year and won NCAA titles in the 200 I.M. and as part of Virginia’s 800-meter freestyle relay as the Cavs took home the overall title. 

Given her recent performances, Walsh will hit the pool as Nashville’s best chance for an Olympic medal in swimming in nearly 40 years. Tracy Caulkins — herself an NAC swimmer and Harpeth Hall alumna — took home three golds (including in the 200 I.M.) at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. 

Alex got an extra boost from her family in Omaha. She can expect a bigger one in Tokyo with an entire city behind her.

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