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Bobby Finke Aims To Defend His Two Distance Freestyle Gold Medals in Paris

by Peggy Shinn

Bobby Finke speaks during Team USA's Media Summit on April 17, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Getty Images)

Bobby Finke burst onto the scene on July 29, 2021, when he came from behind to win gold in the inaugural Olympic men’s 800-meter freestyle at the Tokyo 2020 Games. At the time, he was a 21-year-old college junior with two NCAA titles to his name.

“After I got third in prelims [in Tokyo], that’s when I realized, okay, I really have a shot at medaling here,” he said recently.

Then in the final 50 meters of the Olympic 800, Finke surged from fourth to first, out-touching reigning world champion Gregorio Paltrinieri from Italy and Mykhailo Romanchuk from Ukraine, who had set an Olympic record in the 800 heats.

Two days later in Tokyo, Finke proved that his 800 freestyle gold medal was no fluke. In another come-from-behind victory, he defeated distance freestyle’s big guns and won a second gold medal in the 1,500-meter men’s freestyle.

This summer, Finke, now 24, is hoping to defend both gold medals at the Olympic Games Paris 2024. But the hunter has become the hunted, and the field of distance freestylers is deeper than a diving pool.

From Clearwater, Florida, Bobby Finke was destined to become a swimmer. His mom, Jeanne, swam for Ball State, and his dad Joe coaches at St. Petersburg Aquatics. Finke — like his two older sisters — was in the pool even before he was born.

But Finke credits his sisters, Autumn Skye and Ariel Summer (she goes by Summer), for getting him into swimming. Autumn is four-and-a-half years older, Summer three years ahead.

“My older sisters definitely taught me to be competitive,” he said. “One of the reasons I like swimming was because I wanted to beat them.”

“He wanted to beat us all the time,” said Autumn, with Summer adding, “Even before he could talk, he was just racing.”

“It would go well beyond swimming,” continued Summer with a smile. “We’d run to the car to see who could get the best seat in the car. We’d run to the water fountain, and we’d see who could be first in the pool. Everything was pretty much a race or a competition between the three of us.”

“Eating dinner was a race!” added Autumn. “Not a good one.”

One day when he was 12, Finke finally beat his sisters in the pool — in the final hundred of a set.

“Of course in true Bobby fashion, he out-touched me on the very last one, in the last 50, foreshadowing how he now races,” said Summer.

By his teens, Finke was setting age group records in distance freestyle events. As a 16-year-old, he qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, along with his sisters. The 400-meter freestyle and 400 individual medley were nothing spectacular for young Finke. But in the 1,500 freestyle, he qualified for the final on the last day of trials. It was unexpected, and the Finkes had to change his flight home. (He finished seventh in the final.)

While none of the Finkes qualified for the Rio Games in 2016, the Olympics suddenly felt within reach.

But cut-throat competition does not define the three siblings. When Autumn was a college freshman, feeling overwhelmed and struggling to adjust, 12-year-old Bobby sent her a box of her favorite granola bars.

“That’s the kind of person he is,” she said.

Bobby Finke competes in the men's 800-meter freestyle final during the TYR Pro Swim Series event on April 13, 2024 in San Antonio. (Photo by Getty Images)

Finke followed Autumn to the University of Florida and majored in construction management. With a hectic schedule of classes and training, he rarely had time to eat and instead had to pack himself lunches.

“I felt like I was in elementary school again,” he quipped.

Still, he flourished. Freshman year, he set the SEC record in the 1,650-yard freestyle (the mile). Then as a sophomore, before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world, he smashed the NCAA record for the mile, dropping his time by over 10 seconds. The following year (spring 2021), he won his first NCAA titles in the mile and the 400 IM.

“When it comes to swimming, he has his own internal drive to continue to better himself and also his teammates around him,” explained Summer. “If you talk to any of the UF men or women, they’ll say that Bobby is one of the greatest teammates, not just a great swimmer. He constantly wants to see those around him doing well, which in turn also pushes him to do well.”

With those wins in his back pocket, he traveled to Omaha in June 2021 for his second go at U.S. Olympic Trials. Although he was sick during Trials, he won both the 800 and 1,500 — beating 2016 Olympian Jordan Wilimovsky and junior world medalist Michael Brinegar in both events — and was nominated to his first Olympic team.

But smart money was not on the 21-year-old Florida Gator to win an Olympic medal in Tokyo. The men’s distance freestyle races were stacked with Olympic and world champions. Finke’s initial goal was just to make the final. He was seeded 12th in the 800, so finishing top eight and qualifying for the final would be a stretch.

In the 800 prelims, Finke finished third behind Romanchuk (who set the Olympic record in his heat) and reigning world 1,500 champion Florian Wellbrock from Germany. These three men were about three seconds ahead of the other five who had qualified for the final. Still, with Olympic gold medalist Paltrinieri also qualifying for the final, Finke thought he might end up fourth.

“I didn’t even think about getting a gold until like the last 10 meters or so of the race,” quipped Finke, who won the 800 final by 0.24 of a second to become the event’s first Olympic gold medalist.

“I was just amazed that he was there and doing what he was doing,” said Autumn, who watched the final with Summer and their parents in Florida. “I did not expect the last 50. He pretty much gave us all a heart attack.”

Two days later, Finke was less of a dark horse in the men’s 1,500 freestyle. Swimming in lane 5, with Romanchuk and Wellbrock on his right and Paltrinieri on his left, Finke swam in third place for most of the race. Again, in the final 50 meters, he powered into first, out-touching the Ukrainian by 1.01 seconds.

It was the first Olympic gold medal for the U.S. men in the 1,500 freestyle since the 1984 Games.

Bobby Finke prepares to compete in the men's 800-meter freestyle during the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Swimming, Presented by Lilly on June 17, 2024 in Indianapolis. (Photo by Getty Images)

From Tokyo, Finke returned to the University of Florida and found that another distance freestyle legend had joined the team: Katie Ledecky has trained with Coach Nesty since the fall of 2021. Finke noticed an immediate impact. Practices became more intense. But mostly, Finke and his Florida teammates learned from watching the freestyle legend.

“To have her on the pool deck, seeing how she goes through practices and competitions, how she handles herself, is amazing,” said Finke. “I’ve taken a lot of pointers on how to handle practices and how to elevate my own training.”

At 2022 world championships, Finke again defeated Wellbrock and Romanchuk for gold in the 800 but fell behind Paltrinieri in the 1500, taking silver (but still ahead of Wellbrock).

The field has broadened since then, with a new batch of youth pushing the pace. At 2023 world championships, Finke battled with Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaoui and Australia’s Sam Short for the medals, taking silver in the 1,500 and bronze in the 800.

Finke’s time in the 1,500 at 2023 world championships (14:31.59) was the third fastest in history and only about a half-second shy the world record. He was only 0.05 of a second behind Hafnaoui, who will not compete in the Paris Olympic Games.

In the 800 at 2023 worlds, Finke dropped the American record to 7:38.67 (from 7:39.36 that he set at 2022 world championships).

Still, says Finke, “There’s a lot of guys, it’s never going to be easy.”

Finke graduated from the University of Florida in December 2023 and since then, has focused full time on training — as well as eating well and resting.

At 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials, he plans to swim the 400, 800, and 1,500 freestyle races. He would prefer to add the 400 IM; he has had more success in that event than in the 400 free. But the schedule in Paris dictates that he aim to swim the distance freestyle trifecta. And although he is no longer the underdog — and is in fact, the favorite to win gold in the 1,500 in Paris — he still feels like one.

“I’m not going to think too much about how well someone is doing before the race or after their [Olympic] trials,” he said. “You can go world records now, but at the end of the day, I don’t really care. As long as you can perform on a day that matters, that’s what I care about.”  

While Autumn and Summer plan to travel to Paris this summer, both will have to watch Olympic Trials from home. Autumn just finished law school and is studying for the bar exam; Summer recently started a job with Fitter & Faster, an organization that runs swim camps. But no matter what happens, they are proud of their little brother.

“However many things Bobby has accomplished in the pool and his Olympic gold medals,” said Summer, “he’s an even better person.”