The Australian swimmer scooped gold at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and insists that would not have been possible without the amazing learning curve of the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing. Now he is urging athletes heading to Buenos Aires 2018 to follow the same path.
“The Youth Olympics were a mind-blowing experience.”
Kyle Chalmers’ life has been full of ‘Sliding Doors’ moments. The son of Australian Football League star Brett, he knows he probably would have ended up playing the same sport if the family hadn’t been lucky enough to have a swimming pool in their backyard.
“I played Aussie rules from the age of four, and always wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps,” Chalmers said. “But we had a pool, and I loved it. Because I could swim 50 metres easily, the school wanted me to compete for them, then eventually the state did. I won a lot, and realised I was pretty good. By the age of 12 we were moving from the country to Adelaide, so I could train to become a pro.”
The second decisive moment came aged 16, when Chalmers broke his finger – almost inevitably playing Aussie Rules. “It was three days before the qualifiers for Nanjing 2014, and my doctor told me not to swim,” the 19-year-old said. “But I managed to get a finger brace, and went quickly enough to sneak on the team.
“The finger made it difficult, but I was determined to go to China. It’s that magic word, ‘Olympics’. I just really wanted to do it. I’d had a few friends who had been to Singapore 2010 (YOG), and they told me all about it. I’d just started representing Australia, and I knew the YOG was a prospect.”
Had he chosen not to go to Nanjing and rest his digit instead, it’s tough to predict whether Chalmers’ extraordinary story would have panned out in the same way. He credits his YOG experience as “the most important factor” when it came to eventually winning a gold medal in the 100m freestyle at Rio 2016.
“The Youth Olympics were a mind-blowing experience,” said Chalmers, who picked up three bronze medals in Nanjing. “I didn’t do as well as I would have liked because I got very sick before the event, but by the second week out there I felt better, and I loved the whole thing.
“I was in an apartment with a golfer and a triathlete, and we’re now lifelong friends. I also hung out with the Americans and Canadians. The experience was invaluable when I went to Rio, because I knew what to expect, and there were familiar faces about.
“It allowed me to relax and just concentrate on my swimming, not to get distracted. That was a big part of me winning gold. It is a whole other world if you’re not prepared for it.”
Chalmers also enjoyed the presence of the YOG ambassadors. “Chad le Clos came on the pool deck one day after our relay and we got a photo, which was awesome,” he said. “It was only two years after he’d beaten Michael Phelps at London 2012, so it meant a lot.
“We also had [slalom canoeist] Jess Fox as the athletes’ mentor for Australia, who was fantastic,” he said. “It’s another familiar face you know when you go to the Olympics.”
The swimmer has been through a huge amount in the three years since the last YOG. As well as scooping Rio 2016 gold (and two relay bronze medals), he’s broken the junior 100m freestyle record, and undergone successful heart surgery for supraventricular tachycardia, a condition that leads to palpitations.
It all means that at the age of 19, Chalmers has a very mature outlook. “The surgery has made me realise that you have to appreciate every moment of a short athletic career,” he said. “I’ve got to take full advantage of this gift I’ve been given.”
It’s something he recommends anyone heading out to Buenos Aires 2018 does, too. “My main tip is to make the most of it,” he said. “Not everyone gets the chance to go to a YOG and it’s such a big competition. It shows you what big crowds are like, and it can set up a career.
“I’d say to ensure your preparation comes first. It’s a first experience of living like a pro athlete – so do everything as professionally as possible. Give yourself the best chance to perform for your family, your country and yourself. You can enjoy the village and all the YOG events later.”
The swimmer is also a fan of the way YOGs are pushing sport forward. “They have led the way,” Chalmers added. “I know all the Australian swimmers are excited about the mixed relay that’s going to be at Tokyo 2020. Trying out these kind of things are what the Youth Olympics are all about.”