There is one thing Olympic champion Kyle Chalmers loves more than anything in the sport of swimming: racing. It’s something Chalmers has finally gotten back to enjoying after a tumultuous few years.

In 2019, he underwent heart surgery. Shoulder surgery followed in 2020. With the eyes of the world on him in Tokyo, he nearly became the fifth man to win back-to-back gold medals in the 100m freestyle, winning the silver to American Caeleb Dressel in the oldest Olympic swimming event.

A world record followed in late 2021 at the FINA Swimming World Cup in the short course 100m freestyle, but injuries crept their ugly head as the calendar turned to 2022.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald ahead of the 2022 Australian Championships in May, Chalmers admitted the wear and tear on his shoulders made him feel “like I’m almost 40 most days” just a few months before his 24th birthday. The pain could get so bad, he told the Herald, that he wouldn’t be able to lift his arms above his head some days. It was these injuries he cited as the reasons for taking on a smaller event lineup at the 19th FINA World Championships Budapest 2022, a competition he initially declined to participate in due to the pain.

But a change of heart and some better feeling shoulders swayed his decision.

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Leading up to the 19th FINA World Championships and Commonwealth Games, Chalmers found himself under scrutiny from the Australian tabloids, alleging of a rift between the 2016 Olympic champion and fellow teammates Cody Simpson and Emma McKeon - which Chalmers frequently denied. The microscope on his private life led to a decline in his mental health, which nearly caused Chalmers to walk away from the sport he once loved so much.

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It was during this summer’s Commonwealth Games that Chalmers got back to what he loved: pure racing. After a stressful year on his physical and mental health, he won the 100m freestyle gold medal at 47.51. What followed was a now iconic photo of Chalmers - himself holding a finger to his mouth; a shush directed at the tabloids for circulating rumors. No words were said, but those watching knew the importance of the moment for Chalmers - his swimming did the talking, and nothing else mattered.

The photograph still serves as his social media profile picture as of the time of this writing.

“A million things I could say, but this photo sums them all up and says it perfectly,” Chalmers wrote on Instagram after his 100m freestyle gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. “Thank you all for the support and giving me the courage and strength to stand back up and do that tonight! That one was for you guys.. much love Kyle!”

While the 100m freestyle in 2022 belonged to Romanian teenager David Popovici, who blasted a 46.86 world record in August, Chalmers’ 47.36 in the semi-finals at the Commonwealth Games put him second in the world rankings for 2022.

Getting Back to the Basics

2022 in a way feels like a reset for Chalmers, who has been vocal about his injury issues, undergoing both shoulder and heart surgery within the last three years. After staying on top of his physical therapy needs while on the road for the World Cup, Chalmers is “feeling good” and is “ready to swim fast in a month.”

After a much-needed break, Chalmers returned to racing at the FINA Swimming World Cup in October, winning all three 100m freestyle finals in Berlin, Toronto, and Indianapolis across three straight weekends.

“I think it’s just having fun with my sport and loving what I’m doing,” Chalmers said of how he swam so well at the World Cup. “In Berlin, I rocked out not knowing what to expect and I swam well. I know I get better every time I race because I know I can draw on the week before and refine a few things to get faster and for me having three opportunities to race and it’s going to make me hopefully bulletproof come World Short Course.”

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Racing so frequently lit a fire under Chalmers, who took on the likes of Thomas Ceccon, Maxime Grousset and Brooks Curry week after week, and beat them all.

“The 100m freestyle is my baby and it is the event that I love,” Chalmers said after his third 100m freestyle win in Indianapolis. “It’s the event I’ve been successful in over so many years now so for me there is no better feeling than winning the event I love the most.

“Having new guys come in each week and challenge me for my title - I love the fight! I love the pre-race marshalling room and I love diving in the pool and challenging myself against the best in the world. I know Melbourne is going to be no different, there’s probably going to be a few more big dogs and I really look forward to battling them on my home soil.”

Chalmers answered nearly every question at the FINA Swimming World Cup in Indianapolis with a mention of his excitement for Short Course Worlds at the end of the year.

“I love racing in front of a crowd,” Chalmers told reporters before the final World Cup stop in Indianapolis. “Obviously last year with COVID we were limited so much with crowd capacity so having crowds in these stadiums is awesome. I guess, I don’t want to say getting experience but it is in a way getting that experience racing leading into World Short Course - that’s obviously the pinnacle of the year, getting to finish this year off and I want to be swimming as fast as I possibly can in Melbourne in front of the home crowd.

“So for me, having the opportunity to race against the best guys in the world, performing the races I’m going to be racing in Melbourne and just refining my race skills and diet and what I want to do come Melbourne, it’s been an awesome opportunity.”

It’ll be only Chalmers’ second international meet in Australia, something he is taking tremendous pride in.

“We haven’t hosted an international competition for a really long time - we did Commonwealth Games in 2018 but to have that opportunity is going to be really special and to have the form that I am starting to find and the confidence I’m starting to get from racing at these World Cups, it’s going to make a scary time for anyone that wants to come out and race me in Australia.”

“You always want to swim well in front of a home crowd and so I look at my swimming career and it could be my last opportunity to swim in front of a home crowd at a major tournament. I knew that I couldn’t miss this one and I had to be a part of it and I am really looking forward to it. I know a lot of my family has booked their flights and tickets to be able to come across, and a few of my mates will be there and I am excited to finish the year off and hopefully finish it off on a high.”

The Race of the Meet?

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In Melbourne, he will line up alongside the new king on the block in Romania’s David Popovici. Although they did race in the Tokyo Olympic final where Chalmers won silver and Popovici finished a mere seventh place, the tides have shifted in Popovici’s favour.

Although Popovici remains a bit unproven in short course meters, this matchup will certainly draw attention to the rest of the world. It’s the 2016 Olympic champion vs. the favourite to win the blue ribbon event in 2024. It’s the short course world record holder vs. the long course world record holder. Based on long course swims, it’s the two fastest men in the world of 2022 racing head-to-head for the first time this year.

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However you spin it, Chalmers is eager to race and eager to chase his own world record he set last year at the FINA World Cup in Kazan at 44.84. In short course meters, he’s had the number one time in the world in 2022 at 45.52. In his own mind, if he can fix a few minor mistakes from the FINA World Cup swims, he can be “bulletproof” come Melbourne.

“The world record in the 100 freestyle short course is mine, so every time I get a PB, that is a world record now,” Chalmers said. “Long course, I’m quite close so swimming a PB almost means a world record now. Each world record is faster than anyone has gone in this world. I like challenging myself and I like setting the standards high — 43 is a stretch but I am never going to say never. I am going to work for it. I am getting toward the midway of my career, so we’ll see.”