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In a remarkable 24 hours, Gretchen Walsh ’21 sets world record at Olympic Trials, qualifies for Paris Olympics

In a remarkable 24 hours, Gretchen Walsh ’21 sets world record at Olympic Trials, qualifies for Paris Olympics
In a remarkable 24 hours, Gretchen Walsh ’21 sets world record at Olympic Trials, qualifies for Paris Olympics
Gretchen Walsh swims at a meet in 2021

By Nora Wang '21

After setting the world record in the 100-meter butterfly at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials, Gretchen Walsh ’21 felt all the emotions you’d expect: shock, elation, and gratitude. In the hours following the race, nerves crept in.

“I was definitely nervous,” she said in a press conference at the trials. “I just had a lot of what-ifs going through my head…coming off of breaking a world record and then thinking, ‘I need to do that again, or I might miss the team.’”

Nearly eight years have passed since Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjöström set the last record for the 100 fly at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with a time of 55.48 seconds. On the world stage, Gretchen’s 55.18-second race meant everything. She beat the former mark by over half a second and became the second Harpeth Hall alumna to set a world record, following in the path of three-time gold medal winner Tracy Caulkins ‘81 — arguably the best female swimmer of all time. But in the trials, only one race would decide it all, and it was not the semifinals.

Even as Gretchen made history, she knew the trials weren't over. Only two swimmers would make the Olympic team in the event, and her top competitors included Regan Smith and Torri Huske, both of whom earned medals in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. During the 24 hours before the finals, Gretchen mentally prepared by meeting with her confidence coach and reminding herself that all she needed to do was “execute,” repeating the mantra she’s been telling herself “[the] entire time.” 

Gretchen’s history of executing under pressure reaches back before the trials and three years of record-breaking swimming at the University of Virginia. At just 13 years old, Gretchen was the youngest contestant in the 2016 Olympic Trials. In the years that followed, she continued to excel, becoming the national high school record holder in the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle and winning gold medals at the 2019 Junior World Championships. As a student at Harpeth Hall, Gretchen joined her sister Alex Walsh and fellow Olympic hopefuls Alex Massey and Ella Nelson as they led the swim team to consecutive National Championships in 2018 and 2019. 

Gretchen didn’t just contribute to the legacy of Harpeth Hall’s swim team. She graduated third in her class despite countless hours of training and frequent trips for national and international competitions. More importantly, she was and continues to be well-loved by her coaches, teammates, and classmates. 

Gretchen Walsh smiles with coach

On her signing day in 2021, Harpeth Hall Varsity Swim Coach Polly Linden described Gretchen as “gracious” and “humble,” a “math wiz with a welcoming smile and a passion for the environment.” These qualities keep the Harpeth Hall community deeply invested in her swimming journey. 

The trials have prompted an outpouring of support from current and former students, faculty, and staff as they celebrate the five alumnae competing for spots in the Paris Games. Janet Briggs ’21, a former member of the Harpeth Hall swim team, is just one of many former students who have continued to follow Gretchen’s swimming career throughout college. “It’s been so exciting to see someone I know…achieve her dreams,” she said, noting Gretchen’s “poised” approach to challenging situations. 

As Gretchen ascended the starting blocks for the finals of the 100 fly, she knew what she had to do: execute — and 55.31 seconds later, her spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics was secured. The first thing she did after her win was reach over the lane lines to hug second-place finisher Torri Huske and third-place finisher Regan Smith. 

“Making the team was the biggest goal, but getting a world record was absolute insanity,” Gretchen said during her post-swim interview. “I couldn’t ask for a better first event of the meet.” 

A few days later, Gretchen became an Olympian three times over, finishing third in the 100-meter freestyle to be named to the Team USA 4 x 100 relay team and finishing second in the 50-meter freestyle, qualifying her for the event in Paris. Gretchen would soon be joined on Team USA by her sister, Alex Walsh '20, an Tokyo Olympic silver medalist in the 200-meter individual medley, who earned a repeat bid in the event for 2024.

Gretchen’s new status as an Olympian and the fastest swimmer in the world in the 100 fly crowned a lengthy list of successes that led to her victory. But as she reflected on her journey to the Olympics during the press conference, Gretchen reminded the world that an athlete’s path to success is never linear. Gretchen discussed the disappointment of the 2021 Olympic Trials, which pushed her to train her confidence just as much as her swimming. By rethinking her mindset, she transformed the pressure of outside expectations into a positive driving force. 

"I realized that it’s important to listen to people when they have faith in you and confidence in you and not let that become a weight on your shoulders. It’s important to take what people say and really believe in it, especially your family, coaches, and friends. They are the people who know you best,” Gretchen said. “They are going to be the ones who are there every step of the way and telling you, 'Gretchen, you can do this, you are capable more than you will ever know.'"