Kyle Chalmers Isn't Done Yet

Kyle Chalmers on silencing internal pressure, overcoming obstacles and creating a life outside the pool

With his world championship victory earlier this year, Kyle Chalmers, ambassador for Wahl Australia, finally accomplished swimming’s coveted triple crown. That is, winning a gold medal at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games, and world championships, all in individual events. Chalmers’ journey to this point has been taxing to say the least, but he’ll be damned if he finishes it without another push.

IT’S JULY OF 2023 and we’re approaching the conclusion of the men’s ­­­4×100 metre freestyle final at the 2023 FINA World Championships in Fukuoka. Australia is in third place with one leg to go. They’re in position to challenge for medals, but a shot at a gold medal is starting to look like a forlorn hope. Don’t look away just yet though, for the team is about to get a massive boost in the form of its superstar anchorman. And he’s going to put the result beyond doubt.

Pounding his chest and adjusting his goggles by the pool’s edge is Kyle Chalmers, a towering presence whose outsized frame alone is enough to intimidate his opponents. At 194cm and 93kg, it’s easy to see why he once considered following in his father’s footsteps by pursuing a career in the AFL. Those decisions are long behind him, however, as he stands resolute beside the starting block, primed to deliver a resounding victory. He didn’t swim in the heat; he didn’t need to. Chalmers is the alpha of the Australian men’s swim team. The undisputed leader. The man everyone counts on when the going gets tough, and this scenario is as tough as they come.

From the moment Chalmers enters the water, it becomes a race for the silver medal. Despite starting 0.14 seconds behind the leader, by the time he’s surging down the home stretch, Chalmers is already half a body length ahead of his closest rival, ultimately finishing 0.33 seconds ahead of second place, with a scintillating split of just 46.56 seconds.

That outing served as a warning for the rest of the field. Four days later, Chalmers would finish on the podium again in the 100-metre freestyle, his first individual gold medal at the world championships, completing his long sought-after trifecta and putting him in elite company with swimming’s all-time greats.

Today, Chalmers is poised to embark on his third Olympic campaign, but seven years removed from his first, he looks quite different. There’s no trace of the clean cut 18-year-old that induced uproarious celebrations across the nation when he won gold back in 2016. The now moustachioed Chalmers sports a shaved head and bristly facial hair, of course, he’s also covered in tattoos—or ‘pain stickers’ as he calls them.

After allowing himself a brief respite following the world championships, the 25-year-old is getting back into the swing of things with an intensive training regimen. “I’m starting to get back into some of the best shape I’ve been in, and by the time Paris rolls around next year, I’ll be in the best shape I’ve been in,” he tells Men’s Health during a chat at a bustling Sydney café—the only refuge we could find from the torrential rain marring Chalmers’ only day in Sydney. After re-signing with leading Australian grooming brand Wahl as an ambassador, Chalmers is doing the rounds promoting the brand’s range of men’s trimmers, hair clippers and shavers before returning to routine preparations back home in Adelaide.

Surprisingly, for an athlete who has already reached the pinnacle of his sport, Chalmers is still finding room for improvement. “This year’s probably the first year I’ve really been on top of my mental, emotional and physical health and I really put that down to finding myself outside of the pool,” he says. That’s a loaded statement, one that is slightly menacing.

Considering that Chalmers has already been an Olympic champion, if he’s only now achieving holistic health, his rivals ought to watch out. But to understand the thinking behind Chalmers’ current attitude, we need to take a step back in time.

 

Chalmers’ talents are on full display in his latest Wahl commercial, promoting the brand’s range of men’s trimmers, hair clippers and shavers.

 

HEART POUNDING, HEAD SPINNING, PALMS SWEATING, Chalmers faced the cacophonous cheers of the crowd and the countless camera flashes at the 2016 Rio Olympics like he was accustomed to the world’s gaze—he wasn’t, what 18-year-old competing in the final of the 100-metre freestyle would be? Chalmers says the gravity of the situation hadn’t quite set in at the time, but he was feeling the pressure nonetheless. “It was an overwhelming experience,” he explains. “But that’s a feeling I crave. That adrenaline and nervous energy and the crowd excitement, all your senses are just ready to go.”

Chalmers has been bestowed with many iconic nicknames throughout his swimming career. ‘King Kyle’, ‘The Big Tuna’, ‘Prince Chalmers’, and ‘No dramas Chalmers’ to name a few. Titles like those come with the territory after nearly a decade of dominance in the pool. But when he stepped onto the starting block for the final in Rio, Chalmers hadn’t yet earned a formidable nickname, he was effectively a nobody.

That race didn’t go how it was supposed to. With a lineup featuring defending Olympic champion Nathan Adrian, red-hot Aussie favourite Cameron McEvoy and future five-time Olympic gold medallist and world record holder Caeleb Dressel, the field was so strong that the world champion at the time, Ning Zetao, couldn’t crack the final. The relatively unknown 18-year-old in lane five, who had admittedly impressed during qualifying, was never supposed to win.

At the 50-metre mark, the race was following the script. Canadian Santo Condorelli had jumped out to a narrow lead, with Adrian, Dressel and McEvoy trailing close behind. It appeared that Australia’s best hope for a medal was McEvoy, who hit the wall in fourth place and was gaining fast on the leader. Meanwhile, Chalmers was sitting precariously close to the tail end of the field, appearing almost out of contention and reaching the halfway mark in seventh place. That’s when he kicked it up a gear.

Down the final stretch, Chalmers saw his moment and took it. Surging home with a speed his rivals couldn’t possibly match, Chalmers was first to touch the wall, claiming a maiden gold medal and immediately stamping his name in Australian Olympic folklore. “There’s been no better feeling in my swimming career than turning around and seeing the number one next to my name and realising what I’d just achieved,” he says. “I know how good it feels and it’s something that I’m desperate to achieve again, and that’s why I’m still swimming.”

Chalmers, who astoundingly swims with his eyes closed, was as surprised as those watching from home when he looked up towards the big screen and saw the number one beside his name, but he didn’t show it. With an expression you could almost call blank plastered across his face, Chalmers gave only a subdued pump of his fist in celebration. There was no sign of the usual raucous splashing of water and deafening cheering that typically accompanies such an accomplishment. Chalmers has a fairly simple explanation for his reaction. “At that age, I was quite young and naïve, I didn’t really know what I’d achieved,” he admits. “For me it was just like winning another swimming race.”

 

 

WITH OLYMPIC GLORY comes a wave of international recognition and admiration, especially when the centre of attention is a fresh-faced teenager. Chalmers rode that wave into various lucrative sponsorship deals, TV spots and brand ambassadorships. But the high was never going to last.

Chalmers would undergo heart surgery in 2017 for a condition called supraventricular tachycardia, which isn’t life threatening, but can lead to rapid heartbeats. The surgery failed to fix the problem and the fallout from the operation forced Chalmers to miss the 2017 world championships, necessitating a lengthy recovery process. A year later at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, Chalmers ventured into uncharted territory with a gold medal in the 200-metre freestyle, but failed to take the crown in his marquee event—the 100-metre freestyle—as he struggled to get back to his physical best.

Another heart surgery in 2019 finally remedied Chalmers’ condition, but the consistent medical issues and the weight of immense pressure took a toll on his mental health. “It all came crashing down for me,” he says. “I’ve never been an emotional person, but I found myself being very emotional, crying quite a lot, and just not being able to find my happiness.”

It wasn’t until Chalmers returned home to Adelaide and had a much-needed sit down with his mother that he realised something had to give, and he decided to seek professional help. After consulting doctors and psychologists, Chalmers was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and started rebuilding from the ground up. “It took a long time to find myself and re-establish myself as Kyle Chalmers again, not just this swimmer that everyone’s stopping for photos and signatures everywhere,” he recalls.

The delay of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics due to the Covid-19 pandemic came as a blessing in disguise for Chalmers, who underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery in 2020, which would have otherwise put him out of action for the Games. He would undergo a similar operation on the opposite shoulder in 2022—talk about a tough break.

Chalmers used the delay to realign and reassess. When the Tokyo Games finally rolled around, he swam a personal best time in the 100-metre freestyle final, but ultimately missed out on a repeat gold by the slimmest of margins—0.06 seconds to be precise. Having recently re-upped his ambassadorship with Wahl, Chalmers jokes that perhaps a “cleaner shave the night before” could’ve made the difference by propelling him through the water that much faster. “I really only missed out by a hair,” he says. Needless to say, he won’t be leaving anything to chance the next time around.

Despite finishing one spot lower on the podium than five years prior, Chalmers insists he couldn’t be happier with the result. “For me, my silver is a better achievement than my gold,” he says. “Just getting back there after all the challenges I went though and being able to swim a personal best time in an Olympic final make it one of my greatest and proudest moments. There was a time where I thought I wasn’t even going to be there.”

 

 

TODAY, CHALMERS IS DRIVEN by something greater than recapturing the taste of glory. “I’m very proud that I’ve been able to achieve everything that the 100-metre freestyle has to offer,” he says. “I’ve ticked every box, anything else is a bonus from here on out.”

For Chalmers, the goal is still to be the best, but he’s no longer crippling himself with internal pressure, while also tuning out the external noise. Looking ahead to Paris 2024, Chalmers knows he can win gold, but it’s not going to make or break his legacy. “I’m going to do my absolute best. Whether that means I’ll just make the team and bomb out in the heats, or whether it means I get to stand on the podium and have that feeling again, we’ll have to see, but I’m incredibly proud of myself either way.”

With a renewed focus, unrivalled mental toughness and the expectation that he’ll very soon be in the best shape of his career, Chalmers is feeling better than ever. He puts that down to carving out a life for himself away from his identity as an Olympic champion. “People know me as Kyle Chalmers the swimmer, and I’m trying to be Kyle Chalmers the person first,” he says. In line with that attitude, Chalmers has been pursuing new interests and setting himself up for when he finally decides to walk away from the sport he loves. Although, he’s certainly not going easy on himself.

Instead of giving himself a brief respite outside of his packed training schedule, Chalmers has been working part-time as a tradie. Usually this involves doing the backbreaking labour that no one else on the job site volunteers for. “It’s definitely physical work but I see it as pretty good cross training,” he says, without a trace of sarcasm. What’s more, Chalmers is doing the work free of charge. “It’s just about learning new skills I can use once I step away from swimming,” he says.

You might be wondering how Chalmers stands to benefit from adding hard labour to his already busy schedule—surely there’s better uses of his time, right? But the goal of Chalmers’ budding tradie lifestyle is not to earn a few bucks on the side while keeping himself busy in his downtime, it’s about carving out a life for himself that eschews the skills he’s honed to this point, ensuring he’s set up once his athletic career comes to an end. “It’s all about being Kyle away from the pool. In this case that’s being Kyle the labourer, who has to carry all the heavy shit around and do the jobs that no one else wants to do, and I absolutely love it.”

Chalmers’ quest to find himself outside of the pool and be known as more than just a swimmer has led to him starring in a new TV advertisement for Wahl. The commercial sees Chalmers don a multitude of different hairstyles—from a mohawk and handlebar moustache to a mullet and a slicked-up quiff reminiscent of The King of Rock—in an effort to find the ideal style for securing gold in Paris 2024. As you might assume, none of those trims are the right fit. And it takes a Wahl trimmer to deliver the perfect shave. “I honestly had so much fun filming that ad,” says Chalmers. “No one’s seen me like that before, it’s just another way to differentiate myself from who I am in the pool”.

 

One of many fashionably questionable looks donned by Chalmers in Wahl’s latest campaign, which premiers this month.

 

In the lead up to next year’s Olympics, Chalmers will unveil a top secret Wahl device, which they’re describing as the “world’s most advanced trimmer”. The X-Ray Trimmer will go on sale right before the Olympics, just in time for Chalmers to attain the perfect shave before going for gold once more. “I’ve been using Wahl products for a while, so I didn’t hesitate to be a part of this campaign,” he says.

Chalmers’ focus on his future made headlines earlier this year after his world championship victories, when he extemporaneously stated in an interview that the 2024 Paris Olympics were likely to be his last. Such assertions naturally beget sensationalised media coverage, and Chalmers’ statement was subsequently misinterpreted as an admission that an early retirement was looming.

In any other sport, such an act would be unthinkable, but such is the nature of swimming. Michael Phelps was lauded for his exceptional longevity when he won his 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd gold medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016 at the ripe old age of 31, and swimmers tend to slow down once they reach their mid-20s. Those are prime years in any other sport.

Chalmers will be 26 by Paris 2024, and he was already considered old for his discipline at the previous Games. In Tokyo, at 22 years of age, Chalmers was the second oldest swimmer in his final. Additionally, if he were to win gold in Paris, he would become the third oldest Olympic champion in the 100-metre freestyle ever. In case you’re wondering, the oldest was The Big Kahuna himself, Duke Kahanamoku, who inexplicably won gold in 1920 on his 30th birthday. The second oldest winner was The Flying Dutchman Pieter van den Hoogenband, who was 26. Evidently, athletes don’t last long in Chalmers’ line of work.

Chalmers was quick to clarify his intended point though, explaining that he only meant Paris could be his last Games, and that he plans to continue swimming long after 2024. Now, Chalmers isn’t ruling out competing all the way up to the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane. “It would be amazing to go to a home Olympics in Brisbane, but it depends on my body,” he says.

Chalmers is a realist. He knows that in his sport, nothing less than absolute peak physical performance is necessary to compete. “My swimming career could be taken away from me tomorrow, especially with my history of injuries. I’ll swim for as long as my body and my mind holds up.” Regardless of whether or not he swims well into his 30s, Chalmers can say one thing for certain. “I’ll definitely be swimming after Paris, for as long as I can.”

 

The final trim Chalmers settles on in his Wahl commercial, the perfect cut that only a Wahl trimmer can deliver.

Go to wahl.com for the full range of men’s trimmers, hair clippers and shavers.

Cayle Reid

By Cayle Reid

Cayle Reid is a fan of everything health and fitness. He spends his free time at the gym, on his surfboard or waking up early to watch sports in incompatible time zones.

More From

Timana Tahu Over the Black Dot
Dual rugby international Timana Tahu on ‘Over the Black Dot’, the 2024 NRL season, and the importance of spotlighting Indigenous athletes

Dual rugby international Timana Tahu on ‘Over the Black Dot’, the 2024 NRL season, and the importance of spotlighting Indigenous athletes

One of the few men to represent Australia internationally in both rugby league and rugby union, Timana Tahu knows a thing or two about footy. On the eve of the NRL’s opening round and the premiere of Over the Black Dot’s latest season, Tahu caught up with Men’s Health to discuss the year ahead in rugby league—and why Indigenous athletes should be at the forefront.