How an Unprecedented Swim-Off Embodied the Highs and Lows of Chasing an Olympic Dream

Coach Matt Kredich was put in an unenviable position when two of his swimmers—Erika Connolly and Catie DeLoof—battled in a one-on-one race for the final 400 meter freestyle relay spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
Swimmers compete in the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mykal McEldowney-USA TODAY Sports
Swimmers compete in the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mykal McEldowney-USA TODAY Sports / IndyStar-USA TODAY NETWORK

Matt Kredich came into the interview area by the warmup pool in Lucas Oil Stadium looking dazed and drained Thursday afternoon. The coach of Tennessee Aquatics had just been thrust into the unprecedented, impossible position of watching two of his swimmers—good friends and training partners—in a head-to-head showdown for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. It was like watching two of your children battle for a cherished prize that only one could have.

“I had to keep myself from sobbing,” Kredich says. “It’s possible to hold both (joy and sadness) at once, and I think I just experienced it.”

Freestyle sprinters Erika Connolly and Catie DeLoof had dueled across 100 meters by themselves in a cavernous football stadium—Connolly in Lane 4, DeLoof in Lane 5, surrounded by empty water and palpable pressure. DeLoof led at the turn and looked like she was going to win for the majority of the race. Connolly closed with a surge, pin-wheeling her hand to the wall to touch first in a time of 53.76 seconds. 

The margin of victory in this aquatic gladiator combat: four one-hundredths of a second.

The usual euphoria that accompanies locking up an Olympic bid was absent for Connolly. This was not a moment for unbridled celebration.

“I am sad for Catie,” Connolly says. “I love her, she’s just such a great person who works super hard every day. I envisioned myself going to the Olympics with Catie, so that’s hard. I feel for her. But I’m also very excited and a little bit in shock.”

Here’s how this most awkward competition came to be: Connolly and DeLoof tied for sixth place in the 100 free final Wednesday night with times of 53.86. The two had been in opposite lanes for that race—DeLoof in Lane 1, Connolly in Lane 8—so the tie was not readily apparent.

“I don’t remember which (swimmer’s name) I looked at first, but I looked up and saw ‘6’ and thought, ‘Cool,’”  Kredich recalls. “Then I looked at the other and saw ‘6’ and said, ‘Wait a second.’”

Ties are not uncommon in swimming, especially in the shorter events, but there has never been a tie like this at a level like this. This was a tie that had to be broken, with the top six finishers in the event slotted to earn 400 free relay spots. (Provided the U.S. team doesn’t exceed the maximum headcount of 26 women, which seems extremely unlikely at this point.)

That led to something believed to have never happened before in U.S. swimming history—a “swim-off” for a spot on the Olympic roster. Winner is all but booked for Paris; loser is likely staying home (pending an upset in the 50 free this weekend). The added payload: American relay swimmers are essentially assured of an Olympic medal, unless something goes way wrong.

A tie with that much on the line is one thing. A tie with that much on the line between teammates is another dynamic entirely. 

“When I first saw that I got sixth, I was celebrating for about one second,” Connolly says. “Then I saw I tied with Catie, and I mean I just love her so much, I knew that was going to be really hard. But that’s the sport.”

Kredich asked USA Swimming officials to scour the rulebook for anything that would allow them both to be selected to the Olympic team, but no such luck. The swim-off was scheduled for Thursday after the morning preliminary session was over. That gave him several hours to stew over this thankless position.

“I was prepared for two scenarios for a while, with each one winning,” he says. “But in each of those scenarios I thought, the one who gets beat is not only going to be OK, they’ll figure out how to take this experience forward and be better for it.”

The only dynamic that made it slightly less excruciating is that both women were already Olympians, having been roommates in Tokyo in 2021. But another three years of relentless work since then brought them to an all-or-nothing race each desperately wanted to win.

Connolly’s path to this showdown race was more arduous and unlikely. She suffered a herniated disc in her back in 2023, which she says led to a six-month recovery and forced her to “basically re-learn how to swim.” It wasn’t until April this year when she started posting times that would be competitive at Olympic Trials.

“This past year-and-a-half has been an uphill battle for me,” she says.

The 25-year-old Connolly entered the meet seeded 12th in the 100 free. But she swam much slower than her entry time in the preliminaries Wednesday morning and tied for 15th, squeaking into the semifinals by three one-hundredths of a second over two swimmers tied for 17th. 

Once there, she dropped nearly a second but again finished in a tie, this time for eighth, and this one forcing a swim-off to see who would advance to the final. Connolly beat Anna Moesch by the relatively comfortable margin of .36 seconds, landing herself in Lane 8 for the championship final—the same outside lane she came out of to make the 2021 Olympic team. All told, Connolly had to swim five 100s across a little more than 48 hours.

The 27-year-old DeLoof, who swam collegiately at Michigan before moving her training to Kredich’s pro group in Knoxville not long ago, advanced through the rounds with less stress. She began the meet seeded ninth, was sixth through prelims and then seventh after the semis. She did not have to endure a sudden-death race the way Connolly did prior to Thursday.

After losing a race that it looked like she was going to win, DeLoof’s countenance was as crestfallen as you’d expect. Kredich offered her consolation and reminded her that she still has a shot in the 50 starting Saturday. (She’s seeded seventh in the event, and at least one of those ahead of her is expected to scratch—top seed Kate Douglass. But only the top two will make it to Paris.) 

Kredich says DeLoof asked for a day to process the pain of this one.

“It’s so hard,” he says. “She’s O.K. I told her I thought she raced beautifully. The first 50 she looked magnificent—I thought the race was over. She struggled in the last 25. She’s an Olympian and such a great racer. I told her I loved her.”

Kredich’s roots run deeper with Connolly, who swam for him collegiately and now as a professional. The coach described Connolly as a friend to his late son, Ben, who was struck and killed last year while walking in Knoxville by someone driving under the influence.

Ben Kredich was diagnosed with autism but was living an independent life, working and also advocating for educational rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act. He was a frequent user of the Knoxville city bus system and once attended a Knoxville Transit Authority meeting to request that his bus route was not eliminated.

“The Number 10 bus stop takes me a half-dozen minutes to walk to and is safe,” Ben Kredich said. “The Number 11 bus stop takes me three-dozen minutes to walk to and is sketchy because cars drive so fast on Kingston Pike.”

That’s the road where Ben Kredich was struck and killed, a tragedy that gutted the Knoxville community.

“She and he were really close,” Matt Kredich says of Connolly. “We’ve been through a lot this year.”

Their post-race embrace by the warmup pool was profound for both of them. Connolly choked up while talking about the moment—and while Kredich might not have sobbed, he certainly cried.

The Olympic Trials are an emotional gauntlet for everyone, with lifetime dreams accomplished and great hopes dashed amid unrelenting pressure and competitive strain. But it’s entirely possible that nobody here has been through the emotional wringer quite like Matt Kredich—this week, and within the past year. 

“It’s a beautiful sport,” he says. “I had not experienced the elation and brutal pain of making it and missing it at exactly the same time before, and I don’t think it has to be one or the other. There’s so much contained within every event. I mean, every human being at this meet has a story that involves some triumph and some tragedy, some falling down and always getting back up. 

“I think that’s what addicts me to this sport, being in the stream of these stories and getting to play a part in it.”


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who covers college football and college basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He cohosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Forde has won 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards, has been published three times in the Best American Sports Writing book series, and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, he lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were collegiate swimmers.