WAHS freshman Thomas Heilman likes to play basketball, ping pong, and chess. In school he likes math and Spanish, and his favorite food is any kind of pasta. He also likes to swim very, very fast. In a series of national meets in December, he broke more than a dozen American age-group records to become one of the fastest 14-year-old swimmers ever.
Heilman grew up swimming in Crozet—his two older brothers were club swimmers and he went to their meets as a youngster. “My family was friends with other swimming families and that kind of led me into starting myself because that’s what my friends were doing,” he said. At age five, he began swimming year-round and continued through elementary school. “I was also playing basketball and baseball, so swimming was part exercise, part wanting to get better at it, and also just fun with friends.”
Along with the fun, Heilman improved rapidly and began to attract attention in the sport as he broke Jefferson Swim League records, as did brothers Jason and Matthew and younger sister Katherine. Thomas upped the stakes considerably when he broke the National Age Group (NAG) record for age 10-and-under boys in the 100-yard butterfly, and it’s been a steep and steady rise from there.
Heilman’s passion for swimming means a serious commitment to training. He’s up at 4:15 a.m. six days a week to practice at the Brooks Y pool in Charlottesville with his club team, Cavalier Aquatics. He’ll do that all year, and also compete with the Crozet Gators in the summer and with Western’s high school team during the school year. “I’ll do ‘dry land’ practices with Western two times a week after school—which is like calisthenics, and weights as you get older—and I’ll swim in the meets with the team,” he said.
The difference between attending meets with a team and going as an individual can be striking for a young swimmer. At the U.S. Open in December, Heilman was the only one representing his team in attendance and there were no relay races, whereas at the Speedo Winter Junior Championships, a Cavalier Aquatics team of four boys (which included WAHS standouts Matthew Heilman and Jack Smith) swam four relays together. “When the team’s there it’s definitely a lot more fun,” he said. “You can hang out with them at the hotel and cheer for everyone during the meet, which is also a good way to pass the time because if you’re sitting by yourself for a while you can start to get a little nervous.”
Excess nerves are not a problem for Heilman, nor does he have time for self-doubt. While other swimmers pace the deck with music playing in headphones before an event, he goes over his race strategy with his coach, spends a little time in the warmup pool, and gets centered. “I try to think about the strategy maybe once in those last ten minutes before I swim,” he said. “I’m trying to stay in my own lane, I guess you could say, like in my own head. I try not to think about what other people are going to do.”
That focus might be one reason that his favorite stroke is the 100 fly. “I feel like you’re swimming more of your own race [in the butterfly],” he said. “It’s a little more difficult to look around and see everyone else because you’re breathing to the front of you instead of to the side, like in freestyle. So, it makes it more strategic on your end, instead of trying to pace off of other people.”
Besides the challenge of the race itself, he also faces the strangeness of competing against swimmers who are sometimes more than a decade older than he is. At the U.S. Open, Heilman—the youngest male at the meet by about a year—placed seventh in the 50-meter freestyle race in which the winner was 32 years old. “Yeah, funny enough, that guy actually won the bronze medal in the event at the Olympics this past summer,” he said. “At first when you see those guys it’s kind of weird to be in the same event as them, but after a while it gets to be more like you’re all kind of the same.”
Though he’s been steadily demolishing age group records and has dominated the USA club point rankings for his age in recent years, Heilman’s 11-day span of competition in the two national meets in December was a maelstrom of break-out performances. His times in three events—the 50-meter freestyle and 100- and 200-meter butterfly—would have qualified him for the Olympic Trials this past summer.
The swimming news magazine SwimSwam put the achievements into perspective, particularly his blowout of the 100-yard butterfly record by over a second. “Heilman is not only the fastest swimmer in 13-14 history … but is just over two-tenths shy of the 15-16 NAG in the men’s 100 fly,” the story exulted. Incredibly, he’s less than a second off the 17-18 NAG record.
In the 13-14 age category, he broke or re-broke 14 U.S. event records in December, including re-breaking his own record in the 200-yard fly from the prelims to the finals on the same day. In that race he sliced an astounding 3.36 seconds off his previous high mark coming in. Because some U.S. race distances are measured in yards while others (and all international meets) use meters, a swimmer can hold records in both events—for example, the 100-yard freestyle and the 100-meter freestyle. (Yes, Heilman holds both of those.)
The swimmer whose 2014 200-yard fly record Heilman beat was Olympic gold medalist Michael Andrew, who graciously contacted Heilman to congratulate him. “[Andrew] reached out to me after that meet, he’s a really cool guy, really nice,” said Heilman. Other favorite swimmers of his include Olympians Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy, as well as some of the younger athletes on the U.S. national team that he’s met at recent meets.
As Heilman slashed through 13-14 age group records in December, he found that he had to adjust his own expectations as he went. “Going into the U.S. Open [the earlier of the two big meets], I probably swam faster than I was expecting,” he said. “It had been eight or so months since I swam those times. So then going into the second meet I was expecting to swim that fast.” Does he feel like the sharp improvement will level off soon? “I mean, it’d be cool if it didn’t, right?” he said with a smile. “But at some point, you can only swim so fast.” Maybe, but nothing has slowed him down yet.
He talked about the idea of a perfect race, something that swimmers aspire to but rarely achieve. “In the prelims we are trying to prepare for the night [finals] swim in terms of strategy and what to work on,” he said. “So usually in the morning we’ll find two or three things that I think I can improve on for the finals, and I try to really focus on those things during the race. There are always things to work on, get better at. Even the Olympians finish a race and say, ‘Yeah, there’s something I could have done better there.’ It’s almost impossible to have that perfect race.”
As an example of that kind of self-critique, he mentioned a flat-out mistake he made just the week prior at the Speedo Junior Championships. “During the 50 [yard] free, I was a stroke too long, so I kind of glided into the wall, and then the opposite on the finish, I took one too many strokes,” he said. “In a 50 freestyle, you’re going fast enough with your arms that it doesn’t make the biggest difference, but I probably would have been a tad faster.” (Nonetheless, he won the race, only .07 seconds off of Michael Andrew’s age group record.)
Does Heilman consider himself a highly competitive person? “Yes,” he said, gaze level. One age-group record that he’s still chasing is in the 200-meter butterfly, set by Michael Phelps 22 years ago. Heilman’s time in December was only 0.85 seconds slower than Phelps’, which in swimming is farther than it sounds. “It’s a big amount,” he said. “But maybe if I had that perfect race, it would have been …” and he paused, considering. “It would have been really close.” Thomas, we have no doubt.