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Time Trial Of The Century

3:46.78. That was the FINA A Cut time looming over the men’s 400-meter freestyle final on Sunday, June 13 at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming. 

When the eight-lane field was set for the event’s final, not a single competitor in the final had bested the time, meaning athletes would need both a first or second place finish  and a time faster than the A Cut to be eligible for the Olympic Team.

The race saw Kieran Smith touch the wall first in 3:44.86, securing his spot on the Olympic Team as all first-place finishers with an A Cut do. But when Carmel Swim Club and the University of Michigan’s Jake Mitchell touched second, he looked at the timing board and saw 3:48.17 – keeping him ineligible for an Olympic roster spot.

“I touched the wall and looked at the scoreboard, and all I was looking for was the number 2. I saw the 2 and was excited, but then I looked back and was like, ‘oh wait, did I get the time?’” Mitchell said. “When I saw that I didn’t, I couldn’t believe it. That’s probably the first time that has ever happened, so it was crazy – it was just so much emotion. Other guys, like Ross Dant and Mitch D’Arrigo were comforting me, it was a great race between all of us and could have gone any way, but it was a lot of different emotions and ups and downs.”

One question raced through the minds of swim fans, coaches and especially Mitchell himself: what is next?

After some researching and combing through Olympic-qualifying criteria documents, the plan was developed. In this unique scenario, with one athlete (Smith) already qualified for Tokyo, the second-through-tenth-place finishers at Trials would have until June 27 to beat the time standard at a FINA-approved meet. Since Mitchell finished second in the finals at Trials, he would be given first priority. If June 27 arrived and Mitchell had not beaten the time standard yet, the next priority would go to the third place finisher in the Trials final, then the fourth-place finisher and so on so forth.

With Trials being a FINA-approved meet, the coaches of the second-through-tenth-place finishers were told that time trials would be an option to reach that time standard. 

“I finished warming down (after his second-place finish in the final), came back and they told me that they didn’t know when, but that there was going to be a time trial. I was so grateful for that.

“It’s incredible that USA Swimming has my back and wants to send the two finishers to Tokyo and help me achieve my dream, and I just knew that I couldn’t let people down now. It was so much joy, a little bit of nerves, but I was excited that I had two days off to get prepped for the time trial.”

The stage was set: June 15, roughly 9 p.m., Mitchell versus the clock and seven empty lanes next to him. If he did not best the FINA A Cut here, it would give opportunities for the other top-10 finishers to take a crack at the time standard. If he did beat the A Cut, he would become eligible for U.S. Olympic Team selection.

Unlike most time trials, where most of those still in attendance fall into the coach or parent category, thousands of people remained seated in the CHI Health Center to watch this historic swim. 

“It was a crazy change of emotions in the few minutes leading up to the swim,” Mitchell said. “I was the only person in the entire ready room, so it felt very all-about-me, but as soon as I walked out, all the nerves went away. It was insane. It was the best feeling I’ve ever had in my entire life – to have that many people cheering for me and knowing that everyone was wanting me to get (the time) and knowing that everyone was on my side instead of rooting for different people to win. Having it all about going a certain time and bettering yourself and achieving your goals was so incredible – that is what this sport is about.”

Matt Barbini, Director of Performance for USA Swimming’s National Team, could not help but feel the same way.

“He came out and so clearly owned the moment,” Barbini said. “It was really weird to look down and see just one officials chair on deck – it looked so sparse. It’s a huge room and he is out there by himself. It was so cool. He came out, looked at his Michigan teammates and slapped his chest, and it was like okay, I think we’ve got something here.”

Mitchell took the blocks with a cool and collected demeanor – standing both in front of thousands yet eerily alone in the pool, and dove in. The clock started ticking. 

In an event where swimmers often pace themselves with the rest of the group, Barbini said he was not sure how the swim would take shape without anyone next to Mitchell. 

“It’s a lot of pressure, but in a lot of ways, it’s a different kind of pressure because you’re only really thinking about one thing,” Barbini said. “In the final, you’re thinking about the other seven people in the race and how you can beat six of them. In this situation, he just had to think about going as fast as he absolutely could.”

That is exactly what Mitchell did.

He took it out fast – hearing the crowd progressively roar louder at every flip turn. At each 50, the venue’s public address announcer would read Mitchell’s split in relation to where it needed to be to have a chance of beating the time standard. Though the crowd was erupting from start to finish, Mitchell’s mindset was on two things: himself and the clock. 

“A lot of people don’t do this, apparently, but I close my eyes when I breathe,” he said. “I’ll open my eyes every now and then in a race to see where the pack is at, but in this case, I could do it the whole time since I was alone. It allowed me to focus on my own race.” 

Meanwhile, outside of Mitchell’s closed eyes, it was pandemonium. 

“We are very non-partisan in the press box, we don’t cheer for any one person,” Barbini said. “But I think this was the one thing that we could all get behind – having Jake get the A cut. Bryce (Elser, Open Water National Team Director) was trying to film the race next to me and I was jumping up and down – I almost took the camera out. We completely lost our cool.”

Mitchell made his turn at the 200-meter mark, clocking in at 1:49 to his feet – under the projected pace needed to beat the 3:46.78 time standard. The crowd started to get louder. 

Around the CHI Health Center Omaha, people in all areas of the venue stopped to take notice. Kieran Smith, the winner of the 400 free, was in a media room watching the race on TV before his post-finals press conference and ran out to the competition deck at the halfway point of Mitchell’s swim. In the athlete area of the venue, dozens of athletes and coaches stopped in the middle of their warm down sets to watch on the massive television visible from the pool. 

All eyes were on Mitchell and his time comparisons to the splits he needed to hit, yet, with Mitchell’s closed-eyes technique, his only reference was the muffled voice of the public address announcer and the roar of the crowd: “I knew that every time I flipped, if I could hear him and the crowd get louder, that meant I was doing pretty well,” he said.

Eventually, Mitchell took it home on the last 50, touching the wall in 3:45.86, nearly a second faster than the FINA A Cut and just less than three seconds off his time in the previous night’s final. He was now eligible for U.S. Olympic Team selection.

“I touched the wall and I heard the place erupt, so I knew I got it before I even looked at the board,” Mitchell said. “It was just crazy, I can’t even put it into words.”

For those in attendance, the sight was just as crazy to witness as it was for Mitchell to swim it.

“I’ve seen a lot of cool things in swimming,” Barbini said. “I’ve seen world records, personal moments for athletes and teams, and this is right there with the coolest things I’ve ever seen in the pool. It’s probably the gutsiest thing I’ve ever seen in swimming.

“It is almost impossible to do what he did. If you told me has going to get (the FINA A Cut), I would have said maybe. Don’t get me wrong, he is definitely a good enough swimmer, but that environment, that moment and that situation is just so much pressure. I don’t know how you can muster up that type of courage. He did have a lot of support, you could see his Michigan teammates and his Carmel teammates, his high school coach and his college coach were there, he had an entire building cheering for him, so I think that probably helped. But it shows that this is a guy who rises to the moment. It shows that you can’t count him out. It is so impressive. The time itself was good, but the performance and the ability to do that in that environment is so incredibly impressive.”

On June 20, it became official: Mitchell was named to the U.S. Olympic Team. At age 19, he is the youngest male swimmer on this year’s Olympic roster.

While many in Mitchell’s shoes would look at the high of throwing down arguably the greatest time trial in the sport’s history as the pinnacle of his story, Mitchell is still locked in on bettering himself.

“My friend came up to me and said, ‘what’s up, Olympian?’ and I was like oh, I guess I am one now,” he said. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. Still, even though 3:45 is what I wanted to go, I think that is just 12th in the world right now, so there’s work to do.”

The duo of Mitchell and Smith will now circle July 25 as their next chance to take a swing at the 400 freestyle, this time on the world’s biggest stage. While the story of Mitchell’s 400 freestyle time trial this year is certainly not over, it will be one that both Mitchell and swim fans nationwide will never forget.