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After 2016 triumph, Henrico’s Townley Haas returns to Olympics with unfinished business
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After 2016 triumph, Henrico’s Townley Haas returns to Olympics with unfinished business

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In the aftermath of the 2016 Olympics, Townley Haas felt incredibly happy with what he was able to accomplish in Rio.

At just 19 years old and a rising sophomore at the University of Texas, the Henrico native out of Benedictine and NOVA of Virginia Aquatics teamed with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Conor Dwyer to win a gold medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. Swimming the second leg, Haas helped the U.S. to a more than two-second advantage with the team’s fastest split.

Still, after a result the previous day, Haas left Rio not satisfied.

On that day, Haas placed fifth in the individual 200-meter freestyle. His immediate reaction out of the pool then was, “I want to be better than that.”

“That was definitely at the forefront of my mind getting out of that meet,” Haas said by phone earlier this month.

Now Haas is 24, an Olympic veteran and a pro after finishing his career at Texas with 10 NCAA titles. He qualified for the Tokyo Games in last month’s U.S. Olympic team trials.

And five years since his experience in Rio, Haas’ chief goal is a better showing in the 200-meter freestyle.

“It’s always there for sure,” Haas said.

Haas will begin Olympic competition in less than two weeks. The 200-meter freestyle heats are slated for July 25 with the final on July 27. The 4x200-meter freestyle relay heats are July 27 with the final on July 28.

As with Haas’ Olympic peers, the process to get to Tokyo has been extended after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the games back a year.

When the pandemic hit last spring, with no more pool access available at his typical training spot at Texas, Haas took several days off. NOVA, his club back in Richmond, offered to let him swim there, so he drove from Texas to Virginia and spent about six weeks at home.

Then his coaches at Texas secured pool time at a club outside Austin, so Haas drove back to continue training there.

At year’s end, Haas began his second season in an emerging pro circuit called the International Swimming League — the league put together a bubble in Budapest, Hungary, for five weeks of competition from mid-October to late November.

Haas helped his team, the Cali Condors, win the league title.

It was a fun experience, Haas said. Wyatt Collins — an assistant swimming coach at Texas who worked with Haas when he was in school and who has continued to coach him — felt that type of environment benefited Haas’ progress.

“I think the best in the world are able to take or borrow some of that and incorporate into their own routines so that when they come back to their home environment, like Townley did, he was able to hit the ground running and have a really, really, really focused run-up to Olympic trials,” Collins said.

After Budapest, Haas returned to Texas and got back to work. In the past couple of years, Collins has seen Haas improve in strength-training routine and nutrition and diet habits, cutting out fast food in favor of home-cooked meals with more complete nutritional benefits.

“That was the biggest change,” Collins said of the diet shifts. “He made some changes in the weight room as well in terms of how he was approaching weights and taking things a little bit more seriously and realizing that the weight room was a part of the entire process where he could build strength, how it would help him in the water.”

Haas, in the Olympic trials last month, cliched his spot on the team for Tokyo after placing second in the 200-meter freestyle with a time of 1:45.66, right behind Kieran Smith (1:45.29). Looking up at the results from the pool after the race, Haas nodded his head. The top four finishers earned Olympic tickets.

“It’s amazing,” Haas said of making the Olympic team again. “It’s pretty hard to describe, to be honest.”

Afterward, starting June 27 and through Monday, Haas and the rest of the USA Olympic swim team took part in a training camp in Oahu, Hawaii, which he enjoyed as final preparations for Tokyo were made. The team stayed about a block away from the beach — he could see it from his room.

Haas knows Team USA takes pride in the Olympic relay events. The U.S. has won the men’s 4x200-meter freestyle relay four Olympics in a row, so Haas will aim to keep that run alive later this month.

Then there’s also unfinished business in the individual 200-meter freestyle. Collins believes Haas will be a threat for a medal in the event, and that he doesn’t have to go much faster than his trials effort to accomplish that.

The opportunity has been a long time coming for Haas. In two weeks, he’ll finally get his shot.

“He’s going into this Olympics hungrier than ever, in a really good place mentally, physically,” Collins said. “And it’s been great to watch him mature as an individual and as a young man over the past six years working with him.”

wepps@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6442

Twitter: @wayneeppsjr

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