Chase Kalisz: Chasing A Dream
Kalisz, 18, Defeated Hazardous Disease; Now He Swims With Olympic Fishes
By Keith Mills
Six days per week, Chase Kalisz wakes up at the crack of dawn and makes his way to the Meadowbrook Swim Club in Mount Washington. He puts his body through a series of workouts designed to do two things: test his will and toughness and help him make the U.S. Olympic team.
It is a brutal test of mind over body for every swimmer that hopes to slip on a USA cap in London and represent the country during the Summer Olympic Games.
Lap after lap, mile after mile, Kalisz and his North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammates -- Michael Phelps, Chris Brady and Kevin Webster -- plow through the water under the careful watch of coach Bob Bowman.
"These last two years, when I started swimming with Michael, have been a dream come true," Kalisz said. "He's been the best training partner I could ever ask for, and it's fun for me. I can't get enough."
Phelps, the senior member on one of the NBAC's deepest teams ever, and Kalisz, an 18-year-old high school senior from Fallston, have known each other since Kalisz and his sister, Courtney, left the Bel Air Swim Club more than 10 years ago. Now, they swim together six days per week, eight hours per day.
"He's really been a great mentor," Kalisz said. "I've learned a lot of things from him in a short period of time. I've learned what to do and, more important, what not to do. Always maintain your composure and always respect your competition.
"When I began training with Michael, I was very nervous. I couldn't believe I was swimming with the world's greatest swimmer. I look at him now as an older brother. I ask him a lot of questions, tons of questions about the Olympic experience, how he swims his races, and it helps so much."
Kalisz is one of 24 NBAC swimmers that will head to Omaha in late June for the 2012 Olympic trials, yet the fact that he is still able to dive in the pool is somewhat of a miracle.
It has been 10 years since Kalisz literally crawled down the hallway of his home in Harford County to tell his mother, Cathy, and father, Mike, that he could barely move his arms and legs.
Kalisz and Courtney, a former NBAC All-American swimmer, had run in the Bel Air 5K Town Run the day before.
"He had run a 5K race … and he came in one night and said he had some soreness in his thighs," said Mike Kalisz, the athletic director at Hereford High School. "We thought it was just some residual soreness because of the running. The following night, he literally couldn't walk. We took him right to the pediatrician. He was semi-paralyzed. I mean this all happened in the span of 48 hours."
Dr. Steven Dannefelser told Chase's parents that their son was suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, an acute disorder of the nervous system, which causes weakness and often paralysis of the arms, legs and sometimes face. By the time Chase got to Sinai Hospital, his arms, legs and hands were paralyzed, and his lungs were also affected.
"Guillain-Barre is a neurological disease that eats away at your nerve endings," Mike Kalisz said. "He lost feeling in his legs, feet. It had spiraled into a full-blown case. He was in excruciating pain. They put him in a drug-induced coma for about a week.
"We didn't know if he was going to live or die. Some who have it live. Some die. Some have it long term. Some fully recover."
The ordeal took its toll on the family, but Mike Kalisz said he would never forget the support he received from his friends and faculty at Hereford High, including then-principal John Bereska.
"I was fortunate to be at Hereford," Mike said. "Cathy was there around the clock. I would work during the day and then drive down to Sinai at night. We'd spend the night and then get up and do the whole thing again the next day. It was a tough time, but we survived. Everyone at Hereford is a big reason why."
Kalisz fully recovered, and it wasn't long before he was back in the pool and playing basketball and lacrosse for the Fallston Recreation Council.
"Swimming is a big part of our kids' lives," Mike Kalisz said, "but it isn't their whole life. We want them to be well-rounded. Chase has always played lacrosse and basketball, but he's always really loved to swim.
"His recovery was amazing. He did some therapy at Sinai and then they moved him to a rehabilitation hospital. [After] about six months or so, we got him back in the pool and he slowly started doing laps, and he just took off from there. Again, it's somewhat of a miracle."
Mike Kalisz grew up in Lowell, Mass. He met Cathy when she was working in the Boston area for U.S. Air. They moved to Baltimore 18 years ago. Mike has been a teacher and athletic director at Hereford ever since.
They have four children -- 21-year-old Courtney; Chase; Connor, a sophomore at Fallston High; and Cassidy, a seventh-grader at Fallston Middle School.
Courtney set 12 national age-group records while swimming for NBAC and won the 400 individual medley during the 2005 U.S. Open. She won the 200 butterfly one year later at the U.S. Nationals. Four years ago, at the U.S. Olympic Trials, she blew out an ankle in the first turn in the 400 IM.
She was forced to give up her spot on the swim team at the University of Southern California last year because of surgeries and pain in her ankle. She is currently a junior there and will earn her degree next year.
Cassidy and Connor also swim for NBAC, while Chase continues to excel and prepare for next month's Olympic trials.
"I remember watching the 2000 Olympics when I was 6," Kalisz said. "Michael's first one -- he's the most motivated person I've ever seen. Anything fuels him. If someone says he can't do something, he'll make sure he proves them wrong. I always wanted to swim the 400 IM long course, and I finally got to do that [at the end of March] in Indianapolis."
Chase made the most of his chance, finishing third behind Phelps and Ryan Clary in the 400 IM at the Indianapolis Grand Prix. Phelps finished in 4:12.51. Clary, the U.S. record holder in the 400 IM, swam it in 4:13.0, while Chase's time was 4:19.48.
"To do that in Indy with Michael in the race was unbelievable -- unbelievable," Kalisz said. "The stuff I remember growing up about Michael, watching him and all of these other great swimmers, and now I get to race against them now and even train with some of them. It's hard to describe."
Chase also grew up around Hereford High School, hanging out with his father, who helped run many sporting events at the school.
"I saw a lot of Hereford football games and lacrosse games, the Bull Run," said Kalisz, referring to the three-mile cross-country race held every fall at Hereford High. "It was a great time. I watched how he dealt with the coaches and the players. My dad taught me a lot about how to treat people."
Now, Kalisz is knocking on the door of making the U.S. Olympic team. He takes online classes at Fallston and will graduate in June. Next fall, he'll attend the University of Georgia, although right now his sole focus is on training for Omaha.
Kalisz and his NBAC teammates will head to the U.S. Olympic training facility in Colorado Springs for high-altitude training before heading to Austin, Texas, for a meet in May and the Olympic trials in June.
These opportunities all come just 10 years after Guillain-Barre syndrome nearly took Kalisz's life.
"That was quite a journey," Mike Kalisz said. "We are certainly blessed that he made a full recovery. To see him now in the pool, it really is almost surreal."
"I'm just trying to reach my goals," Kalisz said. "I've learned a lot along the way, still have a long way to go. It's hard, but very, very satisfying."
In addition to Kalisz, Phelps, Brady and Webster, the swimmers who will represent NBAC at the Olympic trials are Natalie Beale, Andrew Cosgarea, Lauren Hines, Lauren James, Felicia Lee, Cam Morris, Bryan Offutt, Kelly Offutt, Stephanie O'Toole, Mary Pelton, Sean Roddy, Cierra Runge, Gillian Ryan, Rachel Schaffer, Allison Schmitt, Jes Stephens, Austin Surhoff, Kendall Surhoff, Willa Wang and Annie Zhu. The Surhoffs' father is former Oriole B.J. Surhoff.
Issue 173: May 2012