As Carson Foster swam the last 50 meters of his 400m IM final on Sunday night at the U.S. Olympic Trials, he was smiling. The 22-year-old made his first Olympic team in the 400m IM, swimming the fastest time in the world this year at 4:07.64.

It was a big weight lifted for Foster, who had the emotion of relief painted on his face the moment he touched the wall. Although he had been the top IM’er in the United States the last three years, the disappointment of 2021 hovered over him.

Three years ago at this meet, he was leading the 400m IM final for 250 meters, and was in the top two alongside eventual Olympic gold medalist Chase Kalisz for 350. But on the last 50 meters of freestyle, he fell apart, splitting the slowest last 50 of anyone in the field, and was caught by eventual Olympic silver medalist Jay Litherland. His dreams of making the team for Tokyo were dashed.

Kalisz and Litherland consoled the young 19-year-old after the race, assuring him the best was yet to come.

Image Source: Jay Litherland congratulates Carson Foster after Foster's win in the Men's 400m IM at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

In the subsequent years, with the help of a mental performance coach, he would win World Championships silver twice in the 400m IM, and held the mantle as the best IM’er in the United States.

But as the Olympic Trials approached, the disappointment of 2021 still lingered.

“Even coming here this week, as much as I’ve grown, there was still a fear, because of what happened three years ago, of coming into this meet,” Foster told reporters late Sunday night at his press conference. “Tonight, just being behind the blocks and feeling a new sense of confidence... It takes years of work to feel good about that.”

For years, Foster struggled with ‘staying in his own lane.’ If one thing went wrong, in his own words: ‘it was lights out for me…I would battle those inner negative voices.’

Image Source: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

He credits his mental performance coaches Susannah Muller and Jim Murphy for helping him overcome these doubts and fears in his races that followed him since 2021.

He had struggled to hold the lead on breaststroke in previous years. He had struggled to get home on the freestyle leg in big finals. He knew he was one of the best swimmers in the world, but he couldn’t seem to put together the right to race to prove that when it mattered.

On Sunday night, not only did Foster hold his own on the breaststroke leg alongside Kalisz, but he had the fastest freestyle leg of anyone in the field.

“Tonight was just different,” Foster said. “I worked on everything I have been working on and staying in my own lane and sticking to my strategy that I know works.

“Knowing when I turned on to freestyle that I was going to be the fastest on that leg - I was smiling that whole last 50.”

It’s the journey, not the destination

Image Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Carson Foster has been one of the top American swimmers since 2021. In 2022, he won two silvers in the IM events at the World Championships.

In 2023, he won three national titles, and again won silver in the 400m IM at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan. The time wasn’t what he wanted, but a silver on the Worlds stage was something to be proud of.

Image Source: Carson Foster competes in the Men's 200m Individual Medley at the World Aquatics Championships - Fukuoka 2023 (Clive Rose/Getty Images)

“I think I could have gone 4:04 had I not lost focus on freestyle,” Foster told World Aquatics back in February prior to the World Championships in Doha. “I was so far ahead of third and so far behind Leon, I just got out of the race.”

But that night after the 400m IM in Fukuoka, he struggled getting to sleep and it affected the rest of his meet.

“I was happy with the swim and the silver medal, but I went to the hotel and I was just on my phone forever,” Foster said. “I delayed my recovery. I didn’t get back to the hotel until 11:30. I had to eat dinner and I got to my home around midnight. I didn’t swim the next day so I was just on my phone and I was up until 2:30 in the morning, just scrolling.”

The rest of his meet didn’t go to plan. He held the top seed in the 200m butterfly after the semi-finals but added nearly a full second in the final and finished sixth.

In the 200m IM, despite holding the lead through the first 100m, he finished fifth and was off the podium.

Although he ended the meet on a good note with a silver in the 4x200m freestyle relay, his overthinking was a clear weakness.

If he was going to be at his best when it mattered in the Olympics, he was going to have to get out of his own head.

“When I started working with my mental coach, he said, ‘When you’re looking at your phone, everything is feeding your brain. How much of that is helping you? How much positive information are you getting from any of those?’ Realistically, I said, ‘None.’ I don’t think I get anything positive from those three. I deleted those apps.”

“When I started working with my mental coach, he said, ‘When you’re looking at your phone, everything is feeding your brain. How much of that is helping you? How much positive information are you getting from any of those?’ Realistically, I said, ‘None.’ I don’t think I get anything positive from those three. I deleted those apps.”
By Carson Foster

This shift in his day-to-day approach helped him swim. He took up reading, and prioritized the daily phone calls with his parents.

“I’ve gotten into reading so much and now I can put away my phone. There is nothing to do on it so I can put it in the other room.”

After last year’s World Aquatics Championships, he turned professional and gave up his last year of eligibility with the University of Texas. While some college swimmers in the United States viewed the short course season as a welcomed distraction from the stress of the summer, Foster had this anxiety over the short course season in the spring.

“Every year after NCAAs, my confidence would take a dip because I would get beat by people who I shouldn’t get beat by and in my mind I was like, ‘am I just not as good this year? What is going on?’

“The coaches were on board for me in an Olympic year to move into my prime years and focus on long course and take advantage of my window.”

Focusing on the “life-giving things” has helped him be more clear-headed in this Olympic year.

A New Approach

Image Source: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The training in the pool was always going well. Foster admits he embraces the monotony of training and ‘turning his brain off’ and going to work. It’s the taper that would stress him out. Leading into the Doha World Championships earlier this year in February, he told World Aquatics he was actually feeling good about his mental and physical preparation for the meet.

In the eyes of those following his meet in Qatar, his silver in the 200m IM final looked like the same movie playing over again, in which he couldn’t finish on freestyle. In the 4x200m freestyle relay, however, he split 1:43.94 for the American team—the fastest an American man had split in six years.

Much has been made about his rivalry with France’s Leon Marchand, who won all three events Foster swam in at last year’s World Championships. While Marchand has been breaking world records and winning World titles, Foster is often seen right there on the side with the silver medal.

It’s a position he wants to be in and one he has learned to be grateful for.

“Would I like to be the best swimmer in the world and break World Records? Of course! I work my butt off and I want that,” Foster said of Marchand. “I want to experience those things he’s experiencing, but am I lucky to have someone like Leon who’s pushing me? Of course. I think I’m more motivated now than I would be if I were in his shoes.

“I’m swimming against a generational talent. The number of people that would want to be in my shoes and want to be the second-best 400 IM’er in the world and one of the best swimmers in the country, it’s hard for me to get too down on that. That is what has centred me this year - I need to step back and be thankful for what I’ve got. I get to experience things that some people only dream about, so I am very lucky to be in the situation I’m in.”

In six weeks, thanks to his swim on Sunday night, Foster will be able to meet Marchand behind the blocks in the 400m IM, where the French crowd will be waiting to cheer Marchand on. Foster is certainly a medal favourite, thanks to his mental preparation that has helped him exorcise some of the demons of his past.

“Overall, what has made me feel completely different is where I’ve grown mentally,” Foster said back in February. “I feel super solid about it, whereas last year I was like, ‘I think I’m growing?’ I’m putting in the work, but you never know until you test it and are in that high-pressure situation.”

Image Source: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

In the pressure cooker that is the U.S. Olympic Trials, Foster delivered in front of one of the largest crowds ever to watch swimming.

“I don’t know what going to the Olympics is like. From what I have heard, Trials is the hard part,” Foster said on Sunday in his press conference.

Paris awaits him, and all that preparation to get to this point has paid off.