TOKYO — The U.S. swim team has a tradition that goes back into the mists. When you swim in the prelims of a meet here at the Olympics, you wear a white cap. When you make it to the semifinals or finals, it’s a black swim cap.
This is one of those aww stories wherein the good guy wears the black hat.
Jake Mitchell is the youngest male swimmer on the U.S. team, just 19, and that he made it to Tokyo was itself something of a fairy tale. He memorably had to swim by himself, against the clock, at the U.S. Trials in Omaha last month just to qualify.
Mitchell, who just finished his freshman year at Michigan, did not medal Sunday in the men’s 400 freestyle. Teammate Kieran Smith did, finishing third in a race won — in one of the biggest early surprises of these Olympics — by Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui. But for the rest of his life, Mitchell — if he does nothing else, and don’t bet against him, because Paris and the 2024 Games are only three years away — can say he earned himself, by guts and sheer will, the hard way, a black swim cap.
Jake Mitchell is, against crazy odds, an Olympic finalist.
And that, that black cap, is something to take back home to Indiana.
When he was 13, Jake Mitchell moved from northern California to Carmel, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis.
Indiana has a long and proud history of high school and college swimming. The Carmel swim club is one of the best in the nation.
Mitchell and Drew Kibler, who goes to Texas, are the first Carmel swimmers to make the U.S. Olympic team. Kibler is two years older than Mitchell. They are good friends. Kibler is due to swim Tuesday in the prelims of the 4x200 free relay.
At the Trials in Omaha, Mitchell went from fifth to second in the final 50 meters of the 400 free. His problem: he touched in 3:48.17. Too slow. To make the 2020 Olympics, swimming’s international governing body, FINA, demands that everybody in the men’s 400 free have raced at least 3:46.78; in swim lingo, this is what’s called an “A cut.”
USA Swimming officials opted to let Mitchell swim by himself in the Omaha pool. If he could get under the A cut time, he would be good. If not, then others in the field would get the chance to qualify.
Nerves? “I was super-nervous in the staging area. Shaking almost,” Mitchell has since said.
The crowd roared for him that night as he went out strong and held on, finishing in 3:45.86, way better than what he needed and more than two seconds faster than his prior race.
“It’s probably the coolest thing I’ve seen in swimming,” Mike Barbini, the USA Swimming national team performance director, has said.
“We’re such good friends,” Mitchell would say of Kibler. “To see him make it, I knew I had to make it as well. I knew I could.”
After the Trials, reports from the swim team’s pre-Tokyo camp in Hawaii said Mitchell was turning it on.
At 19 years and seven months, Mitchell became the youngest U.S. male to swim at an Olympics since 2004. He was seeded 13th. That meant he should not have made the final.
But he did.
In Saturday’s prelims, in that white swim cap, Mitchell went 3:45.38. If at an Olympics you go faster than you did at Trials, that’s performance under pressure. What more can you ask?
Especially because Mitchell had told insiders that what he really wanted here was that black cap.
That 3:45.38 earned Mitchell a seventh-place seed in Sunday’s race. The only guy lower: Hafnaoui, 18, all the way across the pool in Lane Eight, who would, you know, win. Which no one saw coming.
Back in Lane One, Jake Mitchell, 19, finished eighth. He was hanging on, in fifth, halfway through the race, then fell to seventh and, ultimately, last.
No shame. Zero. None. Only class.
In that final 50 meters, Mitchell found an extra gear and finished in the 27s. Jack McLoughlin, the Australian who took second? His final 50:27.70. Mitchell? 27.74. Smith — like Mitchell, in a black cap in the finals — went 27.13 to power to third.
Hafnaoui touched in 3:43.36; McLoughlin 16-hundredths behind; Smith roughly four-tenths behind that.
Mitchell finished in 3:45.39, one-hundredth of a second in the final behind his prelim time.
“I’m just glad for the experience,” he said afterward, adding quickly, “Grateful for the experience.” He went on to say, referring unprompted to the Trials solo swim, “There’s definitely a lot more fun swimming with other people, especially from other countries, and being able to represent the USA is obviously the greatest honor that I could have.”
At the Olympic Games, Jake Mitchell proved himself one of the Top Eight guys in the world. An Olympic finalist. For all time. He was reminded of that, and asked if it had sunk in.
“Kind of,” he said with a laugh, adding, “Obviously, I would like to have been a little faster. But, again,” black cap already in hand, “I told myself going in I would be happy with whatever happened …”
This is what is called a win.