EASTON — The initial disappointment was expected.
After all, the 2020 Summer Olympics had been etched on Tyler Christianson’s calendar for so long. Then COVID-19 butted in and canceled the entire Tokyo Games.
“This is all I’ve been working for,” Christianson said in March 2020.
Though a change of heart didn’t come as swiftly as a flip-turn, the 2020 Saints Peter and Paul High graduate and Easton resident was soon looking ahead.
“His first response was, ‘It just gives me a year to get better,’” Naval Academy Aquatic Club coach Hilary Yager said, recalling one of the first phone calls she had with Christianson after the Summer Games had been called. “Completely optimistic. And to be honest with you, he’s absolutely right. He’s on the upswing here. His foot is on the accelerator pedal and he’s just going to get faster. So to be honest with you, this could be a blessing in disguise.”
Sixteen months later, Christianson agreed with Yager’s assessment 100 percent.
“I think a whole lot has changed ever since I went to college just in terms of becoming much stronger,” Christianson said during a phone conversation from Tokyo one week ago. “I’m a lot more well equipped for my racing, knowing what I need to do; taking care of my body. Just having that year of college to really prepare for what it’s like at the next level, rather than being, I guess looking back at it now, a bit of a naïve high schooler in retrospect to these big competitions. So in that case I think that I’m well more prepared in every aspect: mentally, physically. Just preparedness.”
After a strong freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, the 19-year-old Christianson — who has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Panama — arrived in Tokyo as Panama’s lone male swimmer, scheduled to swim in the preliminaries of the 200-meter breaststroke on Tuesday, July 27, and the 200 individual medley on Wednesday.
“I feel a lot of relief personally for just having all the hard work pay off,” said Christianson, who would have competed only in the 200 medley a year ago. “More than anything I’m just excited to go compete. I’m really excited to get after this thing. It’s a lifelong dream. I know the work’s been done and it’s just time to have fun and embrace the competition. These are the best of the best. I’m a really competitive guy and there’s nothing I want to do more than compete with the best in the world.”
Christianson, who holds Panama’s national records in 200-meter individual medley (2 minutes, 03.16 seconds) and 200 breast (2:15.78), also wants to make this more than just a first-time experience.
“To break some national records for Panama would be good,” Christianson said when asked what would make this a good Olympics for him. “Hopefully to final would also be good.”
But Yager, who coached Christianson for four years and has spoken frequently with him in the buildup to Tokyo, emphasized a one-race-at-a-time approach.
“Just win your heat,” Yager said. “Keep winning your heat. Don’t get too far ahead about thinking about anything. Just get your hand on the wall first. And then you’ll keep advancing.”
There are 40 entries in the men’s 200 breaststroke, and 46 in the 200 IM. The top 16 times in each event qualify for the semifinals, with the top eight advancing to the finals.
“I think if I got into a semifinal that would be really good for me,” Christianson said.
Christianson also called his COVID-impacted first year in South Bend a good one.
“I’d say it was a pretty good year in the aspect of going around the campus, getting a feel for it, meet my teammates and really form some great relationships with them,” said Christianson, a finance major. “And now I get to go into this next year at Notre Dame COVID-free, and really get to embrace all the aspects without the restrictions. So that I’m looking really forward to.
“But this year has been great in terms of training,” Christianson continued. “Definitely the best training that I’ve ever done. I know that I haven’t worked this hard ever in my life. It’s been a great year for me swimming-wise and academically as well.”
Swimming-wise, Christianson was named Notre Dame’s freshman of the year, and already ranks fourth all-time in school history in the 200-yard breaststroke (1:454.32) and 400-yard IM (3:44.49), and is sixth all-time in the 200-yard IM (1:45.09).
He placed ninth in the 400 IM (3:44.49) at this year’s Atlantic Coast Conference championships, was 11th in the 200 breast (1:54.32), and 14th in the 200 IM (1:45.16). He capped his season at the NCAA championships, where he finished 24th in the 200 breast (1:54.57), 31st in the 400 IM (3:49.0) and 42nd in the 200 IM (1:46.04).
“He is truly one of those kids who made the absolute best of a terrible situation,” Yager said of Christianson’s perseverance through the ups and downs and uncertainly created by COVID. “He’s always been able to do that. His tenacity kind of shined through this year.”
And an extra year to prepare for Tokyo has also proved to be the silver lining Yager touched on 16 months ago.
“It definitely has worked in his favor,” Yager said. “It’s like comparing a high school football program to a college football program. He had the advantage of going to Notre Dame and getting into a program that could offer him things that our little age-group program couldn’t for an entire year. And it’s definitely paid off. He’s gotten into the weight room. He got to practice very consistently. He has another year of maturity under his belt, which has been amazing for him. And I think because he has another year under his belt he appreciates this experience so much more. Especially after the year that’s just happened.”
Having the Games pushed back a year has also afforded Christianson another benefit with Notre Dame head coach Mike Litzinger on Panama’s coaching staff.
“He’s someone that’s had this experience of going to the Olympics as a coach,” Christianson said of Litzinger. “So he kind of knows the preparation, what I need to do. So having him here is kind of like a real comforter to know that everything is under control and just kind of follow his lead because he’s been in this position before.”
While Panama did not have an Olympic trials like the U.S., part of Christianson’s preparation has been a Pan-Am training camp that has included swimmers from South American countries and the Caribbean.
“A lot of those guys are in my events,” Christianson said. “So I’ve definitely gotten to know them personally, train with them and race with them for this past week. So I definitely know some of these guys a little bit better now. That pushes me to really want to beat them even more.”
Christianson has been focused on fine-tuning starts, turns, strokes and getting plenty of rest heading into his events over the past two weeks. And though he said he wasn’t nervous, he knows that is likely to change.
“I’m sure the day the competition starts, or when I start getting close, I’ll be real nervous,” he said. “Right now, I’m feeling pretty good where I am. I wouldn’t say I have any nerves in my body right now.”
But his has goals.
“It’s been about two years since I’ve actually swam in a long-course meet with competition like this,” Christianson said. “So those (national) times being two years old I definitely think I can take a load off of them.”