Two days before the most important swimming meet of his life, Drew Kibler was too sick to get out of bed.
“I didn’t know if he was going to swim at all,” said his mother, Tracy.
It was a Saturday, and Kibler was supposed to swim preliminaries of the 200-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic Trials. His mother asked a friend to take Pedialyte to his Omaha hotel room to aid recovery. USA Swimming dispatched a doctor to see Kibler, who was diagnosed with a sinus infection.
On Sunday, Kibler felt better. On Monday, he qualified for the final. On Tuesday, he became Carmel’s first Olympic swimmer.
“It could have been a weird blessing in disguise because it took his mind off any jitters he might have had,” his mother said.
‘This is just the beginning.’:Why Indiana produces so many Olympic swimmers
Your subscriptions help us…:cover Hoosier Olympians like few other local papers
The swimmer has acknowledged jitters. He has acknowledged search for balance.
This is what happens when the body weakens. The mind is strong enough to override it.
“Right now is the best I’ve ever seen him, body, mind and spirit,” Kibler’s mother said.
In finding such balance, Kibler finds himself in his first Olympics. Because there is reason to believe there will be another. The foundation he has built has become a starting block.
He will race Tuesday in Tokyo in prelims of the 800-meter freestyle relay and maybe the final Wednesday (11:26 p.m. EDT Tuesday).
Just one event. But at the Olympic Trials, he came close to qualifying for three.
“I don’t believe he’s reached anywhere near what he will reach,” said Eddie Reese, the 80-year-old coach at the University of Texas.
Swimmer, artist, poet
Kibler has “almost too many talents,” Reese said.
The 21-year-old won awards for photography and poetry before he did for swimming. He draws and paints. Everyone thought he would become an engineer. He was such a good student he was recruited by Harvard and Stanford. He has overcome hearing loss, especially at Omaha, leaving his hearing aids behind in Texas.
So who is Drew Kibler? Swimmer? Or scholar and artist?
Carmel coach Chris Plumb counseled him about it. Kibler would “push back” in teenage rebellion. The swimmer would tell his math teacher he could not stay up late to study because he needed more sleep before swim practice. Other times, he would de-emphasize swimming.
“When you’re younger, you’re not quite grasping that one is good for the other,” Plumb said. “It doesn’t have to be all swimming or all art.”
In Tokyo, it could be both. Reese sent Kibler a photograph of a Mandarin duck, asking if he would paint it while gone. On campus, Kibler uses a drone to take “incredibly beautiful pictures,” the coach said.
Kibler is a product of two high-powered programs. Carmel has won seven successive boys state titles — the 2018 team, when Kibler was a senior, was almost certainly Indiana’s best ever — and Texas five of the past six NCAA titles. Kibler was the highest-scoring Longhorn swimmer at March’s NCAAs.
In some moments, it might have been oppressive.
In 2017, the 17-year-old had a chance to be the youngest pool swimmer on a U.S. national team since Michael Phelps, then 16, in 2001. Kibler caught poison ivy and performed poorly at the nationals in Indianapolis. He capped the junior worlds, also in Indy, with a relay gold but lost that medal to a teammate’s doping offense.
There is pressure in this sport, Plumb said, and especially at an Olympic Trials. Michael Phelps, who has addressed mental health since his retirement, has inspired Kibler — and not merely for the 23 gold medals. While still in high school, Kibler’s goal was to have “success and happiness at the same time,” he said.
“Drew is always in this constant search of putting out that great swim,” Plumb said. “But he’s never happy or satisfied. He’s always exploring. I would say he’s definitely on the journey. He’s trying to search for himself.”
Teen superstar to new start at college
There is nothing inevitable about making an Olympics, even for someone with Kibler’s résumé.
His parents never envisioned any of it when he began swimming at age 3 in a pond on their Putnam County property. They moved to a Noblesville home by Morse Reservoir, and then to Carmel.
“In our minds, it was 100% for safety,” Tracy Kibler said.
After transferring from North Central, the Indiana High School Athletic Association ruled him ineligible to compete as a sophomore at Carmel, so he concentrated on summer 2016. He took a selfie at the Olympic Trials and said he had “the look of terror.”
He got over that.
As a senior, he won nine medals in the East junior nationals, set a national record in the 50-yard freestyle and had four firsts at the state meet, became the first high schooler to break 1:33 in the 200-yard freestyle, and was national swimmer of the year.
At that summer’s Junior Pan Pacific meet, the gold-medal count: USA 27, Kibler 5, Australia 4.
Soon after the pandemic canceled the 2020 NCAA Championships, Kibler relocated from Austin to Carmel, taking classes online. He reunited with Plumb and trained for five months with Jake Mitchell, who made the Olympic team on the same night Kibler did.
Transitioning to Texas can be difficult, Reese said, because swimmers who previously won everything usually do not win anything. Kibler was an exception.
“He was able to win repeats during practice,” Reese said.
In the first event of his first NCAAs, Kibler led off a Texas team that won the 800-yard freestyle relay and set an American record.
Confidence was reinforced when he won two medals, including bronze in the 200-meter freestyle, in the 2019 Pan American Games at Lima, Peru. His Olympic dream was delayed a year later, but not denied.
USA an underdog in 800 free relay
In Tokyo, there is as much clarity as Kibler will ever have: Swim fast enough in prelims to get Team USA to the final, fast enough to be in the final foursome, fast enough to win a medal.
Kibler and Townley Haas have extended one streak: There has been at least one current or former Longhorn swimmer on every U.S. Olympic team in the 800-meter freestyle relay since 1988.
It will be harder to extend another: Four successive golds.
In fact, it will be difficult to medal at all, and U.S. men have never failed to medal in a relay at an Olympics. The Americans rank below Great Britain, Russia and Australia.
There is a standard set by American relay teams, Kibler said, and he expects no change in 2021.
Americans “can do relays,” Reese said.
Kibler can do everything. He has range from 50 to 400 meters. Since the trials, he has focused on training for the 200 freestyle, starting with a Hawaii training camp.
“I know the task at hand. It’s a lot more straight-forward,” he said.
At the trials, he was fifth at 150 meters and finished third. His time was 1:45.92, a personal best and .26 behind Haas, who was on the gold-winning relay team in 2016. Top two get to swim the 200 freestyle in Tokyo.
“He was closing on everybody,” Reese said.
Kibler came back the next day to swim his best time, 48.72, in the 100 freestyle. Then he did not make it out of the semifinals.
He planned all along to make it in the 400 free relay, too.
“I always want more. I still think I have the ability to swim in that relay,” Kibler said.
Reese suggested the Americans might fare better than projected because pool depth at the Tokyo Aquatics Center is 10 ½ feet, compared with 8 ½ feet at Omaha. The deeper, the faster.
Also, the first-time Olympians have been mentored by the likes of Phelps, Aaron Peirsol and 24-year-old Caeleb Dressel, who could win as many as six golds.
Kibler has also been influenced by Australian great Ian Thorpe, who has theorized swimmers are not going out fast enough in the 200 freestyle. The event has “been stagnant for almost two decades now,” Kibler said.
He has not been.
Besides his 50/100/200/400 freestyle range, Kibler might try butterfly next year, Reese suggested. In the last two years of high school, Kibler won state titles in four different individual events, unmatched in Indiana.
Yet the Texas coach said each swimmer has a separate timetable. Kibler is not thinking ahead to the 2024 Paris Olympics but conceded making this Olympics “leaves me wanting more.”
As long as balance is preserved, he can get what he wants.
Contact IndyStar reporter David Woods at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.