Sixteen-year-old Thomas Heilman, a Western Albemarle High School rising junior, has had a pretty interesting summer so far. In June, he went to the U.S. Swimming National Championships and broke a 200m butterfly age-group record held for 22 years by superstar Michael Phelps. He qualified for the U.S. National Team in the 200m and 100m butterfly by finishing second in both races with personal best times. In July, at the World Aquatics Championships in Japan, he became the fastest American 18-and-under ever in the 200m fly. He tied for fourth place in the event with another personal best time.
In the WORLD.
Heilman has broken lots of records in his young career, many of them age-group high marks as he’s progressed up the ladder. The Phelps record was for the 15-16 National Age Group (NAG), set in 2001, and Heilman broke it to earn a spot on Team USA. He’s the youngest male swimmer to qualify for the national team since Phelps, and he also qualified in the 100m butterfly, though he had to break his own NAG record to do it.
While Heilman is typically mild-mannered on land, his tenacity in the pool is another thing entirely. At the U.S. Championships he trailed 21-year-old Carson Foster and another swimmer by a full body length (and 1.5 seconds) at the final turn of the 200m fly finals, but only the top two finishers would automatically qualify for the U.S. team. Heilman powered down the last 50 meters like a freight train, closing the distance and touching the wall only 22 hundredths behind Foster.
In a post-race interview, Foster graciously said he was “glad he could hold on to win,” but that the story of the day was really “all about the kid.” Does Heilman mind the “kid” reference? “I don’t really mind being called kid because I am a kid,” said Heilman. “I’m only 16 years old, so I almost take it as a compliment because people realize what I’ve accomplished at a relatively young age.”
Whether due to his youth, his training, or other preternatural abilities, Heilman is riding a very steep wave. He’s been slicing great chunks off his times—his 200m fly win at Nationals was two full seconds faster than last year, and a half-second faster than he swam in the prelims that morning. A month later, at Worlds, he knocked another seven tenths off his time, actually breaking the 17-18 national age group record in the event, though it doesn’t count because, of course, he’s still 16.
As a cherry on top, he swam the butterfly leg of the 4x100m medley relay in the preliminaries and the team went on to win in the finals, so he’s bringing home his first international gold medal to boot. It’s difficult to absorb the magnitude of what Heilman is doing, but here are two facts: his performance at Worlds in the 200m fly made him the 4th fastest American in history, and the 16th fastest person in that event on planet Earth, ever.
Swimming writers and commentators have compared Heilman to Michael Phelps a lot lately, as both athletes surged in breathtaking fashion onto the national swimming scene in their mid-teens and both are especially good in butterfly, individual medley, and freestyle events. “I think it’s fair to say I’m on a similar trajectory as Phelps, but it’s hard to know where I will end up,” said Heilman. “I have my own expectations for myself and try not to compare myself to others. With that being said, however, I believe I am similar to him in the sense that I’m very competitive and I hate to lose.”
That quality has always been there, his family will tell you. Heilman’s father, Brad, said Thomas’ siblings are all good athletes who like to compete. “One of the biggest things for Thomas his whole life has been trying to keep up with his older brothers, particularly Matthew [3 years older, who swims for UVA]. There were many times when they were younger where Thomas had to push to try to beat them, and every milestone was a competition.”
After the 200m fly finish at the World Championships, Phelps—who called the race for NBC Sports—raved about Heilman’s performance. “What a great swim for Thomas out there! 1:53.8? Let’s go. That is our future, right? This kid’s good!” Phelps pointed in particular to Thomas’ last three 50-meter split times—all under 30 seconds. “That’s how I swam the race when I was a kid, that’s how you want to swim the race,” he exulted. “You get the last three 50s under 30 seconds, you’ve got a shot to do something great. And he just put up an amazing best time today.”
Do the dizzying time drops surprise Heilman? “I wouldn’t really say I’ve surprised myself because I have seen the small improvements all year long both in training and competition,” he said. “So I definitely thought I was capable of the performances I had, but it’s still always nice to see the time drops when I finish a race.”
Mind of his Own
Heilman’s swimming worldview is quite cerebral for a teen, and is integrated into, rather than held separate from, other parts of his life. “My main goal is always to just keep improving,” said Heilman. “I think if I can continue to improve both in and out of the water, I will reach all of my smaller, more specific goals. Additionally, I always want to build great friendships that go beyond swimming.”
Part of Heilman’s ability to focus, both in practice and in meets, is his reliance on well-defined objectives to organize his thinking. “He sets goals for himself, he always has since he was young,” said dad Brad. “Some are possible and some are maybe a reach in the current season, but he’s always looking ahead. He gets up early, works hard, stretches every night—he’s very serious about his craft.”
Heilman swims for Cavalier Aquatics, the club team of the Piedmont Family YMCA in Charlottesville. Head coach Gary Taylor has worked with collegiate and internationally elite swimmers before, but he says that Thomas possesses a unique combination of traits. “The way he’s doing what he does, at his age, is just somewhat unheard of,” said Taylor. “He’s probably as mature as any college athlete I’ve ever worked with from a psychological standpoint. To do what Thomas did at the world level is incredibly mature, and incredibly brave. There aren’t many swimmers, even with 5 and 10 years more experience, who can mentally work through those types of stresses.”
Taylor said there’s both a science and an art to coaching young people, and he focuses on knowing his athletes both as swimmers and as people outside the water. “Thomas just understands what he’s doing on a really deep level, and he’s able to block out the noise and be himself,” he said. “He lives in his process. He never gets too high, never gets too low.”
For that, Taylor tips his hat to Heilman’s supportive and grounded family. “I would give his parents a ton of credit for his success,” he said. “The way they’ve educated him, the way he interacts with people and carries himself, those things don’t just happen. They want Thomas to do what he wants to do—they don’t push him, they’re very modest, they don’t brag, they’re not demanding, and they trust his process. They have been a huge part of his outcomes.”
In the Moment
As ever, Heilman continues his work to improve. “Over the last couple years, I have put a bigger emphasis on building a greater aerobic base, which I think has helped me be able to close races like the 200 fly faster,” he said. What about other events? “I definitely like the fly events the most, and they are probably my strongest events, but I enjoy working on all of the strokes and think that I am capable of being just as good in free and IM [individual medley] as well.”
Asked what he thought was the optimal balance (50/50? 60/40?) between superb physical conditioning and sheer mental strength to be able to compete at the highest levels, Heilman adjusted the premise. “I think the mix between the physical and mental side of swimming is 100/100,” he said. “I think you need to train your body to be ready to compete while also being mentally tough enough to utilize all of your training and physical abilities in difficult, high-pressure situations.” He’s skeptical about the idea of a flawless swim. “I don’t think there will ever be a ‘perfect race.’ There is always something to improve upon in any race.”
Even as they celebrate the victories, Taylor hopes to impress upon Heilman the magic of the moment as part of the wider picture. “Thomas has got a tremendous work ethic, but he’s also humble, he’s great academically, he’s an incredible teammate,” said Taylor. “I told him at Nationals that I believe he’ll have many other phenomenal performances in his future, but even if it never goes beyond this, what he’s already achieved are things that most people never have the chance to achieve in their lives. And what makes him special is not the moments in the pool, but the really, really good person he already is every day.”