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Townley Haas speaks to reporters after an event at the NCAA Tournament. (Photo Courtesy Texas Athletics)
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Richmonder Townley Haas will compete in 100, 200 and 400 freestyles at the Olympic Trials beginning Sunday June 26. (Photo Courtesy Texas Athletics)
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Richmonder Townley Haas celebrates a swim with the Hook 'em Horns hands symbol. (Photo Courtesy Texas Athletics)
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Richmonder Townley Haas celebrates with Lonhorn Coach Eddie Reese. (Photo Courtesy Texas Athletics)
Updated: On Tuesday, June 28, Townley Haas won an Olympic bid with his performance in the 200-meter freestyle. Haas placed first, beating 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte, who came in fourth. Haas won by 0.11 (or 11/100) of a second, securing one of the two slots to compete in the 200 on Team USA at Rio. The Olympic Games begin Aug. 5.
Richmonder Townley Haas, 19, heads to Omaha this weekend for the Olympic Trials after a record-breaking freshman year swimming for the University of Texas under the guidance of legendary coach Eddie Reese.
At the NCAA Championship meet in March, Haas crushed a decade-old record in the 200-yard freestyle, becoming the first swimmer ever to clear the 1:31 mark in the event. He now holds the event record in the NCAA, American and U.S. Open with 1:30.46.
“I think that’s when, you know, my coach kind of looked at me and other people were like ‘Dude, you might be able to go.’ ”
To the Olympics, that is.
Haas got his start in the pool around age 5 swimming for the Church Run neighborhood team in Henrico and began NOVA of Virginia Aquatics’s year-round program at age 7. He swam with both teams through his senior year, in addition to swimming for Benedictine High School.
NOVA coach Drew Hirth was head coach at Church Run for Haas’ first few summers swimming there and was also his age-group coach at NOVA when Haas was 10. While Haas moved through various age-group coaches and completed his NOVA career under head coach Geoff Brown, Hirth kept in touch.
“He has great support at home, and his brother and sister were always nothing but supportive. And at junior level and senior level [swimming], he had some great coaching, but a lot of it is distinctive to him,” says Hirth. “He’s special and unique in that he can tune out everything else and just focus on getting his hand to the wall first.”
Hirth was also at the NCAA Championships for Haas’ record-breaking.
“For him to go in his freshman year at NCAAs, where you don’t get much faster times, and to be able to break a 10-year-old record that a lot of people thought was going to last for a long time, it’s pretty incredible,” he says. “He made it look – I know it was really hard and he probably felt like he was on death’s door – but he won by a body length and that doesn’t happen at that distance, at that level.”
Haas gained some early recognition, but Hirth says that it wasn’t until the swimmer’s junior and senior year of high school that his success solidified. That’s when Haas began shattering records. As in, Michael Phelps records. At the 2013 Winter Junior National Championship, Haas broke the 15-16 age group record in the 500-yard freestyle. The age-bracket record was previously set by Michael Phelps in 2002.
Haas’ momentum has continued as a freshman at the University of Texas. Coach Reese has him training with with the long-distance group, which Haas believes has helped him cut his times.
In January, Haas beat Phelps again. This time, in the same pool. At the Arena Pro Swim series in Austin, Haas placed second in the 200-meter free to Frenchman Jeremy Stravius. Phelps placed fourth. Haas was quick to acknowledge that this race wasn’t a definitive defeat.
“For a lot of people, like for me, it’s not a big meet,” says Haas. “So I guess people outside of swimming were like ‘Whoa, you beat Michael Phelps,’ but you know inside it's like, ‘Well neither of them are shaved or rested.’ But you know, it’s still pretty cool. You can still say it.”
Swimmers typically taper their workouts and rest for a few weeks leading up to important meets, swimming significantly less yardage to rest up for the event.
“You have all of your work behind you, but you’re not as tired,” explains Haas. “That’s when you go fast. If you don’t rest enough, or rest too much, or something happens, you know, you just have to hope you hit it right. A lot of it is how hard you worked leading up to it.”
That’s the sweet spot Haas will try to hit this weekend at the Olympic Trials, where he will swim the 100, 200 and 400 freestyles. His pre-meet routine is indicative of the cool, calm demeanor he’s known for.
“I just kind of try to stay relaxed all day and just try not to worry about anything,” says Haas. “I know that sounds pretty simple. A lot of people have one song they listen to or a routine, but no, I just kind of warm-up and get ready.”
How can Haas qualify for the Olympics? The team selection process prioritizes the top two swimmers in each individual event as well as the top four 100 and 200 freestyle swimmers for relays. Since he specializes in the 200 free, the relay qualification increases Haas’ chances of going to Rio.
“It’s kind of crazy,” says Haas. “I just never even thought it would be even this close of a possibly.”
And Hirth's advice for Haas?
“Don’t change much, just go out there and race. We’re all cheering for him back here in Richmond.”
You can watch the Olympic Swimming Trials on NBC. Haas’ first event is the 400m free on Sunday, June 26, at 11 a.m. Click here for the full schedule.