Failing to make USA Swimming's Tokyo 2020 Olympic team may have been the best thing for Carson Foster’s career, but it certainly didn’t seem like it at the time.
In the lead up to the Olympic swimming trials, the 19-year-old prodigy from Ohio was being tipped to make the plane in at least one of the men's 200m freestyle, 200m individual medley (IM) or 400m IM.
But he agonisingly pulled up one position short in the 400 IM and the 200 free, before missing the 200 IM mark by 0.18s. He was left distraught.
“I was kind of in a funk for two weeks. I unfollowed USA Swimming on Instagram as I couldn’t take seeing pictures of everyone at training camp… having fun in Hawaii, going to the Olympics,” Foster told Inside with Brett Hawke.
“I wanted to do it for the city of Mason, my club team, for myself, for my club coach. I wanted to be Mason’s first Olympian.
"I didn’t want to swim the rest of the summer.”
Carson Foster's epic bounce back
But the American's rut didn’t last long.
Foster headed back to The University of Texas at Austin, and two weeks later decided to join his friends at practice.
The team’s infectious spirit, coupled to his enjoyment of racing quickly brought him back to life.
“That’s when swimming is fun to me. That’s why I enjoy practice so much,” he said of the friendly competition of practice sessions.
“I’m so competitive and that side of me was fulfilled again.”
“I think it’s been the biggest life lesson, swimming lesson that I’ve ever had.”
It also helped him gain a healthy perspective of what had happened at Trials.
“I accepted that I’m young. (Before trials) I didn’t see myself as a 19-year-old that was trying to make his first Olympic team. I saw it as my last chance. What if I don’t make it again?
Swimming faster than the Olympic champion
It’s amazing the difference a week or two can make.
On the eve of the Tokyo Games in 2021, Foster created headlines in swimming media by swimming a 4.08.46 in the 400 IM, smashing his Trials performance by an astonishing two seconds.
More importantly, this performance was the world’s fastest that year, almost a second better than what would turn out to be Chase Kalisz’ gold-medal-winning mark.
“At first it was mixed emotions for me, because I’d been in a good spot and accepted that I wasn’t there,” he revealed.
“But then I swam that time which brought me back down and made me think again that I should have made it and won the Olympics.
“I took a step back and thought, ‘Finishing the year with the fastest time in the world is the coolest thing I’ve done in the sport to this point. So I need to sit back and appreciate that.”
Carson Foster: If I swim perfect I’m going to be hard to beat.
A wiser, more mature Foster wouldn’t be denied a second time.
At the USA’s 2022 World Championships team trials in April, the three-time short course World medallist beat Olympic champion Kalisz to win the 400 IM.
His second event qualification came in the 200 free, where third place was good enough to see him selected for the 4x200 relay team in Budapest.
Kalisz reversed the finish to win the 200 IM, but second place for Foster meant a third place on the Worlds team.
The young star attributes his new-found mental confidence as the key factor to his upturn in results.
“I think I am (the best 400 IM swimmer in the world) now, but I don’t think I was comfortably the best last year. I was holding myself back mentally,” he said.
“I put together a perfect race and I think that’s what it takes every time. We’re at such a high level now that if you put together a perfect race, you’ll probably win.
“That’s my strategy now: If I swim perfect I’m going to be hard to beat.
“I do training sets and I get really get jacked up. I feel like no one else in the world could do them.”
World Championships men's medley match ups
Each World Championships cycle usually produces a new focus event, and in 2022 the men’s medley events could take centre stage as the most competitive.
In addition to reigning Olympic champion Kalisz, Foster will be watching Great Britain’s Duncan Scott, Japan’s rejuvenated reigning 200 and 400 IM world champion Seto Daiya, and French NCAA breakthrough star Leon Marchand closely.
Like Foster, if any of these men execute their perfect race, they will be quietly confident of victory.
“We raced at the 2019 world juniors, Back when he was a little skinny kid,” Foster said of Marchand.
“He’s a beast. He’s filled out. His underwaters are insane, I don’t think it’s any secret that that’s his strength.”
There will also be a psychological advantage up for grabs in Budapest, with the 2022 Worlds being the first major event in the run up to the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
“I just got goosebumps thinking about taking him on in Paris. I need to make it there first, and put myself in that position.
“The 400 IM is getting really deep and really fast. That would be awesome if that was the showdown. That’s the most exciting type of race I can think of. It’s kind of like a Rocky movie!”