There’s a new wave coming, I warn you.
It was with envious glances across the Atlantic at the apparently carefree lifestyle of the “Kids in America”, all malls, milkshakes and drive-in movies, that Kim Wilde sang in 1981, but the lyrics apply just as readily to the US swimmers making their way across the Pacific to Tokyo to compete at these Olympic Games.
As an American team prepares to mount its assault on an Olympic gala without Michael Phelps for the first time since 1996, it does so with 11 teenagers in its ranks. While swimming, like gymnastics, routinely produces more youthful champions than, say, boxing or rowing, that is still a staggering number, the most to have earned a spot on notoriously one of the toughest Olympic rosters since that same Atlanta Games of ’96.
Some are, despite their youth, well established - 19-year-old Regan Smith was a world record-holder and world champion on the 200m backstroke at 17 - but if ever there was a group of pandemic-delay beneficiaries, this it it. Lydia Jacoby, the first Alaskan swimmer to qualify for the Olympics, was planning to head to Tokyo as a fan with her family in 2020 before the postponement forced a rethink and an upgrade, while 16-year-old Bella Simms went into the trials ranked 39th in the country over 200m freestyle but produced the swim of her young life to make the relay team.
For Jake Mitchell - the sole male among the teen XI - even the extra year nearly wasn’t enough. The 19-year-old looked to have blown his shot when finishing second in the 400m freestyle at the trials without dipping under the qualifying standard, only to grab a bonus chance in a specially approved solo time-trial 48 hours later.
The youngest of the lot is 15-year-old Katie Grimes, the youngest American swimmer, in fact, to make the team since Katie Ledecky did so at the same age at London 2012. Happily, it is Ledecky that Grimes will swim alongside in the 800m freestyle in Tokyo, having finished second to the five-time Olympic champion at Trials. “You’re the future,” Ledecky had told Grimes after one of their heats at the start of the week. By the time they were celebrating qualification together a few days later it was: “You’re the now.”
“I used to just think it was cool that we had the same first name,” Grimes said afterwards. “Now we’re on the team together!”
Claire Curzan, who turned 16 last month and shares a birthday with Phelps, found the paradigm shift similarly hard to comprehend as she joined her new teammates, virtually, for the first time in WhatsApp group chats. “You’re seeing these names like Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, Lilly King, texting your phone and you’re like: ‘What the heck?!’”
Ledecky knows better than anyone the stresses and joys that come with converting prodigious talent into Olympic selection so soon and has spoken of the need for the team’s more experienced athletes to create a family environment around their younger peers, whose actual families are unable to accompany them on what is, for some, a first ever trip outside the States.
It’s a role Ledecky suits well. As a fourth-grader at Stone Ridge School in Maryland, the future great was already paired up on a “buddy” scheme as a mentor to a kindergartener named Phoebe Bacon who - you guessed it - now 19, is another of the teenagers on the team.
And make no mistake about it, these kids are under pressure. The United States swimming team is an institution, synonymous with burly collegiate prestige, glamorous swagger and gold. It has returned home from every Games since 1960 with at least eight gold medals and its total of 246 accounts for not far short of half of the swimming golds ever dished out at the Olympics. Only one team (USA track and field) has won more gold medals in a single sport. Only four countries have won more Olympic titles in total. Representing the Stars and Stripes in the pool at the Olympics is rather like playing football for Brazil at a World Cup. Expectation abounds.
There again, this crop have already passed one monumental test with flying colours, coming through a Trials process that often throws up races with more depth than the Olympics themselves. Emma Weyant, 19, beat three former Olympians to qualify for the 400m individual medley. So unfazed was 18-year-old Torri Huske that she was, rather fittingly, doing origami in the call room half-an-hour before breaking the American record on the 100m fly to book a spot on the plane to Tokyo.
Now she and the rest of the kids in America have touched down in Japan, and they’re ready to take on the world.