After being a promising young star in the United States, including being named the Sports Kid of the year by Sports Illustrated Kids in 2018, Leah Hayes had risen to be one of the best swimmers in the world in 2022. It was something that came very quickly to her at age 16, but something she believed she deserved.
“I really was able to understand the impact of believing in myself,” Hayes said of performing at the Budapest World Championships. “I had many people coach me and say, ‘you must be so nervous, you’re at your first World Championships and you’re so young.’ But I was like, I’m actually not nervous – I knew I was meant to be there. There had been steps in my journey that had led me to this point and I know I am physically and mentally prepared for this. Going into that meet with that kind of knowledge, I was able to perform at my best and not feel any nerves.”
As a 15-year-old in 2021, she was ranked 54th in the world in the 200m IM. As a 16-year-old in 2022, she dropped nearly four full seconds off her best time in one year to sit fourth globally at 2:08.91, securing a 1-3 finish at the Worlds alongside fellow American Alex Walsh. Hayes was awarded the “breakout performer of the year” for 2022 at the Golden Goggles Awards ceremony by USA Swimming and her stock had risen as one of the top young swimmers in the world.
Hayes found it difficult to follow up her performances from the World Aquatics Championships – Budapest 2022 when she went back home for her junior year of high school at Kaneland High School in the suburbs of Chicago.
“I was in a little bit of a lull after Worlds,” Hayes said. “I did not know how to carry myself with the success I had had. Going to a local meet with not as much pressure, I still felt pressure to be the best that I could any time and all times I was competing. I felt the same way at practice.
“I went back with a different mindset feeling that I had to be perfect every single day to maintain my status in swimming and get better. It was very stressful and not good for my mental health and so with some time, it really just did not work well.
“Eventually I realized I needed to go back to my roots and that I enjoyed swimming by itself and everything else was just perks. Swimming and competing, I had to go back and realize it was just simple. It was something I enjoyed doing and I couldn’t think about the pressure or the eyes around me.”
In 2023, Hayes lined up for the finals of the 200m and 400m IM at the Phillips 66 National Championships in Indianapolis with a shot at making Worlds again to defend her bronze from 2022.
However, the meet didn’t go as she had hoped. In the 400m IM, Hayes scored a best time at 4:38.45 to finish in third, three seconds away from making the team for Fukuoka. In her best event, the 200m IM, she was nearly two seconds slower than her best time from 2022 with a 2:10.42 to finish fourth – two and a half seconds away from second place. The time a disappointment – she had swum quicker earlier in the season in front of her hometown fans at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Westmont two months prior.
It had been a dissatisfying end to a long preparation of hard work. Hayes had been in the water for eight months straight, starting in October after announcing her commitment to swim for the University of Virginia. But she learned a lot in the failure, and she took a much needed break after Indianapolis.
“After Nationals, I decided to go to Florida for a few days for a fresh restart and just relax a little bit,” Hayes said. “I wasn’t too happy with my performance (at Nationals) so my coach and I went back to the drawing board and made some new plans and things have been going really well.”
Following the end of the US Nationals, Hayes accepted the invite to attend the World Aquatics Junior Swimming Championships in Netanya, Israel, where she will be swimming the 200m and 400m IM as well as the 200m freestyle and the 4x200m and 4x100m freestyle relays.
Hayes has been with her coach Nancy Hooper at the Fox Valley Park District Riptide Swim Team in the Chicago suburbs since she was eight years old.
“She recruited me from swimming lessons because she liked the way I pulled the water,” Hayes said. “I tried out for another competitive team and I was rejected. I didn’t think competitive swimming was my game but then she recruited me and it turned out to be.”
Although Hooper will not be in Israel with Hayes, the two will be in touch every step of the way while Hayes is overseas.
“I will probably be calling her just about every practice to talk about how things went and how things are going. I will definitely call her before my races to get any last words from her.”
This will be Hayes’s third straight year traveling over the Atlantic Ocean to compete internationally. Two years ago, she swam at the FINA World Cup circuit in Berlin and Budapest as a member of the United States junior team, while last year she swam her lifetime best in the 200m IM three times en route to the bronze medal in the World Championships final.
“I know what to expect and I will be well prepared for it and if I can use my experiences in the past to help other swimmers, I would be more than honored.”
International competitions can be a little bit of a culture shock when walking in for the first time. Being in another country is already an adjustment to make, while the swim meet itself includes much more walking with a ready room for heats, semi-finals, and finals, in addition to media obligations, a medal ceremony, and doping control – activities that aren’t too common at run of the mill domestic meets. But she keeps things familiar no matter where the meet is, utilizing the same meet warm-up since she was 13.
“There’s a lot more activity with going to a World Championships than swimming at a local meet where you are sitting on the deck and all you have to do is go behind the blocks. At the World Championships, they do walk us through the ready room and then where we would be for the walk-outs.
“Before the World Championships, I would swim in the main competition pool to get a feel for how the water was and how the lights work. They were trying out all the different lights and all that fun activity while I was swimming. That was a little nerve wracking at first but I wanted to swim in that competition pool to get adjusted for that specific reason.”
This year’s World Juniors represents a redemption opportunity for Hayes.
“As a Christian, I heavily believe in God’s plan,” Hayes said. “With every step of the way, there’s things that I may not understand at the time but later it will all come together. With the World Championships, I felt there were many things that prepared me well that I felt God had put into my plan to help prepare me for the World Championships and that’s why I had so much confidence going into that.
“So I feel like I am meant to be at the World Juniors with not qualifying for Worlds so I am pretty confident with the more training I had this past few weeks and months I am definitely a little more confident going into World Juniors.”
After Nationals, she and coach Hooper decided to work on more technique, strengthening her push-offs and individual medley transitions. This will also be the first time she will be racing in relays internationally, pending a selection for the team by the coaching staff.
“I am training heavily for the 200 free, not as heavily as the IM’s. My training is mainly IM but we definitely throw a lot of freestyle in there. I am really excited to be on the 4×2. This will be my first international relay but I am hoping with more training and more time I can snag a spot on the relay next year at Olympic Trials.”
Hayes will be the top seed in both the 200m and 400m IM as she is thus far the only athlete in the competition to have already won an individual medal at the senior level at the World Aquatics Championships. The world junior record for both events may be a little out of reach as Canada’s Summer McIntosh set those marks earlier in the year at 2:06.89 and 4:25.87, the latter being the world record. But Hayes will be the overwhelming favorite in both IM events, swimming three seconds faster than second seed USA’s Haley McDonald already this year in the 200m, and nearly two seconds faster than Canada’s Ella Jansen in the 400m.
Hayes will also be the third seed in the 200m freestyle where she will do battle with top seed Jansen and hometown star Daria Golovaty of Israel.
With her experience, she will be heavily relied upon as a leader for the United States. Two years ago at the World Cup, she was timid in representing her country with a lot of people she didn’t know very well, but now she has a better grasp of it.
“I think that I will know very well how to carry myself at this sort of meet with my experience at World Championships. This will be my third international meet so with that I feel like I will be able to feel more confident going into this. I’m really excited to have some great teammates and represent Team USA again.”
For relays, the United States will be in a tight battle with Australia in the 4x200m. Last year at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships, the United States relied on a 1:54 anchor from Erin Gemmell to secure gold over the Australians by a second. Those two nations have been at the top of the medal table for years and years at the senior level, and the competitive rivalry has trickled down to the junior level.
In Netanya, Hayes (1:58.27) will likely lead the 4x200m relay team along with sixth seed Addison Sauickie (1:58.66) against the Australians led by fourth seed Amelia Weber (1:58.42) and seventh seed Hannah Casey (1:59.11).
The 4x100m should be a similar story as Hayes (55.03) could line up with teammates Anna Moesch (54.36) and Erika Pelaez (54.98) to race against the Australians led by Olivia Wunsch (54.05) and Milla Jansen (54.54).
“I find that I am usually able to give more in relays when I am swimming not only for myself but my teammates and my team,” Hayes said. “When there is a bigger meaning to the race and more people depend on you, I find I have even more to give. With these relays coming up, I am super excited to potentially be a part of them and to represent the United States with a relay.”
The World Junior Swimming Championships have been a barometer for the sport’s future talent to test themselves on the international stage since the first iteration of the event in 2006. Current world record holders Leon Marchand, Mollie O’Callaghan, and Thomas Ceccon competed at the meet in 2019 in Budapest, while last year’s competition in Lima saw future Worlds medalists in Diogo Ribeiro and Krzysztof Chmielewski.
Hayes is one of the headliners for the United States team heading into Netanya and has already achieved quite a lot in the sport. She will be using this meet as a stepping stone towards greater goals of potentially qualifying for the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“With my recent experiences, I have learned to look at any meet as just another competition so I am not nervous about it.”