Tom Shields, who two years ago came back from the darkest of places, delivered a moment worth a huge smile Saturday night when he finished second in the 100-meter butterfly at the U.S. Olympic swim trials and qualified for the Tokyo Games.
Shields, a 29-year-old Cal grad, swam 51.19 seconds to finish behind world-recordholder Caeleb Dressel but well ahead of third-place Luca Urlando (51.64). The top two earn tickets to the Games.
Cal alums Nathan Adrian and Abbey Weitzeil advanced to Sunday’s finals of the men’s and women’s 50 freestyle on the meet's final night.
A member of the gold-medal winning 400 medley relay at the 2016 Rio Games, Shields has been open about past mental health issues, including his attempt to hang himself.
Fortunately, his wife and fellow Cal alum Gianna Tinetti prevented Shields from following through on his suicide attempt.
“If G didn’t miraculously turn around and come home from her commute I wouldn’t be alive today,” Shields wrote in an Instagram post a year later. “She called me out of the blue at a time I normally wouldn’t be reachable, and distracted me til she got back.”
While Dressel (49.87) swam the fastest time in the world this year, Shields (51.19) clocked his fastest time in five years with a mark that ranks No. 11 on the yearly list. Cal’s Trenton Julian tied for fourth place in the 100 fly with Coleman Stewart, each at 51.78
Shields becomes the sixth different Cal swimmer to earn a spot at the Tokyo Games, but one other accomplished Golden Bear could not overcome injury and has run out of chances.
Kathleen Baker, a 24-year-old Cal alum who won a gold and a silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was expected to challenge for spots on the team in three events this week.
But she suffered a freak injury walking on a beach last month, breaking a bone in her foot and damaging a tendon. She made it to the Friday night final of the 200 backstroke but never was a factor in the race, finishing fifth in 2:08.78. Earlier, Baker failed to land a roster spot in either the 100 back or the 200 individual medley.
Isabelle Stadden, coming off her freshman season at Cal, was in second place at the halfway mark but finished fourth in 2:07.86.
The 200 back featured what NBC analyst Rowdy Gaines called “the biggest upset of the meet — not even close,” with world-recordholder Regan Smith finishing third, one spot shy of a berth in Tokyo.
Meanwhile, Adrian kept alive his bid for a return trip to the Olympics by qualifying third into Sunday’s final of the 50 freestyle. Adrian swam 21.78, finishing second in his semifinal heat behind American record-holder Dressel (21.51).
Adrian, 32 and chasing his fourth Olympics, is one of American's all-time great freestyle sprinters. But he battled testicular cancer two years, requiring two surgeries, and he did not make the team this week in the 100 free.
No less an authority than Olympic swim legend Michael Phelps texted the NBC broadcast team to say it’s important that Adrian find a spot on the team not only because of his talents in the pool but because of his experience and leadership.
In the morning prelims, Adrian won his heat and was third overall at 21.85.
Two other Bears who did not advance beyond the heats were incoming freshman Jack Alexy (17th in 22.47) and 2021 senior Ryan Hoffer (19th in 22.50).
The remarkable career of Tony Ervin, who previously went by Anthony, likely came to an end in the morning heats of the 50 free.
A two-time Olympic gold medalist in the event — 2000 at Sydney and then 16 years later at Rio — Ervin was hoping to at least make it to the finals at the age of 40.
The oldest Olympic men’s swimming individual gold medalist when he won in 21.40 seconds at 35 in Rio, Ervin was third in his heat and 23rd overall at 22.61.
Weitzeil had the fastest time of the women’s 50 semifinals, touching in 24.27, the eighth-fastest in the world this year.
Her performance sets up a rematch of the 2016 trials showdown against American record-holder and Stanford grad Simone Manuel, who qualified first out of the other semifinal — and third overall — with a time of 24.50. Five years ago, Weitzeil beat Manuel in the 50 finals at Omaha.
Weitzeil swam the fastest time of the morning prelims, touching in 24.50.
Other Cal women who dd not advance beyond the 50 heats: alum Madison Kennedy (19th in 25.53), rising senior Isabel Ivey (21st in 21.58), alum Amy Bilquist (tied for 29th in 25.79) and incoming freshman McKenna Stone (47th in 26.53).
Cover photo of Tom Shields by Ron Schumacher, USA Today
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo