One of the most pressured sporting events in the world begins on Sunday. The United States Olympic Trials for swimming are a melting pot like few others in athletics, with lifelong hopes and dreams fulfilled or crushed by hundredths of a second.
In no other country is competition so fierce for two places at each event, and no one else organizes their swim tryouts in a 17,000-seat basketball arena. It’s a test that can fry even the strongest minds. “One of the worst days of my life is the day I entered the Olympic team,” says Maya DiRado, who would go on to win four medals in Rio de Janeiro (two of them gold) after enduring the nerves that plagued her in Omaha.
DiRado, a very smart Stanford graduate, was the favorite to win the 400-meter individual medley on the first day of testing in 2016. Running through that load was almost paralyzing. “The sheer terror and stress I felt until 7 pm, when I changed to 350 [meters] and I was pretty sure I was going to be part of the Olympic team, it was horrible, ”she says. “It is the most intense swimming competition that anyone will be able to go to. But there is a benefit for the US team. We went into Rio and it was easy. “
The United States will expect to enter Tokyo next month with similar confidence. But to get to Japan you have to go through Nebraska. Here are five main storylines to monitor as the competition unfolds from June 13-20:
1. Who fills the post-Phelps gap?
No one really replaces Michael Phelps. There is no doubling of his 28 medals, 23 of them gold, or the star power that elevated swimming to its highest level of Olympic popularity during his career between 2000 and 2016. But the United States is certainly not without star power.
The best swimmer on the planet is still Katie Ledecky, the distance dominator who adds another event to her repertoire with the inclusion of the 1,500 meter freestyle as a women’s event in these Olympic Games. She is the prohibitive favorite in trials in all freestyle events starting at 200 meters, holding world records in the 400, 800 and 1,500. From a workload standpoint, Team USA would like to refrain from wearing her in the 400 freestyle relay in Tokyo, but she has the speed to be a factor there too in an emergency. Ledecky was on his game at meetups this spring in Mission Viejo, Calif., And Austin and has been crushing practice sets. All signs point to another great summer for the 24-year-old Stanford graduate.
On the men’s side, the main draw is sprinting sensation Caeleb Dressel, a flashy Floridian who won two relay gold medals in Rio and is expected to take on a much greater workload in Tokyo. He’s arguably the most athletic swimmer America has ever produced – former Florida soccer coach Steve Spurrier watched him sprint and wondered why he wasn’t a wide receiver. Dressel, 24, is the favorite in the 50 and 100 free styles and the 100 butterfly (where he holds the world record), and will be a huge relay factor in Tokyo. He’s also likely to swim at least one round of the 200 freestyle in Omaha to rack up a time that solidifies him for the 800 freestyle. Six or seven medals could be within reach.
Other 2016 multi-event medalists expected to again play a significant role in both individual and relay events: Simone Manuel (freestyle sprint), Lilly King (breaststroke) and Ryan Murphy (backstroke). King, in particular, has been untouchable in the 100 breasts since his famous victory over Russia’s Yulia Efimova in Rio. “The only way she’s not on the team is if her plane lands in Cheyenne, Wyoming, instead of Omaha, Nebraska,” says Keenan Robinson, USA Swimming director of sports medicine and science.
2. Where will veteran leadership come from?
Team USA Head Coaches Dave Durden (Men) and Greg Meehan (Women) will welcome whoever gets to the wall the fastest, but may quietly seek out a couple of vets who can provide guidance priceless wisdom. On the men’s side is sprinter Nathan Adrian, and on the women’s side is Allison Schmitt.
The 32-year-old Adrian was trained by Durden at Cal and has won medals in the last three Olympics. Since Rio, the towering freestyler has overcome testicular cancer and become a father. He is highly respected and should be a part of the team as a relay swimmer, but he may have to summon his best swimmers in years to reach Tokyo in individual events.
Schmitt, 31, is also trying to make his fourth Olympic team. His honesty in speaking out about fighting depression earned him great respect and admiration within the sport. Phelps’ close friend should be in the mix of relay spots in both the 100 and 200 freestyle – the top six in each event make up the team – but the competition runs deep in both events.
Then there are the real gray beards trying to make one last Olympiad: Ryan Lochte and Matt Grevers, 36, and Anthony Ervin, 40. The three gold medalists at different Olympics would be long shots: Lochte in the 200 IM, Grevers in the 100 back, and Ervin in the 50 free.
3. Who are the potential innovative artists?
On the men’s side, Michael Andrew has had a highly publicized and unusual career leading him to the cusp of stardom. He turned pro at age 14 and has never been part of a mainstream team, having been coached by his father, Peter, for his entire career. Andrew, now 22, swam big in May in Indianapolis to establish himself as a threat to be part of the team in multiple events, most likely 200 IM, 100 breaststroke and 50 freestyle.
Regan Smith took the realm of the super-competitive women’s back by storm in 2019, breaking world records in both 100 and 200 at age 17 at the World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. Minnesota postponed its enrollment at Stanford due to the pandemic and has not returned to those record times, but it will be the favorite at both events in Omaha and could be a threat at many others as well.
4. Can teens take the pressure?
Smith, now 19, is part of a large fleet of fast young American teens, many of whom have used the year-long delay to the Olympics to their advantage in terms of development.
The two most intriguing teen athletes are Claire Curzan (16) from North Carolina and Torri Huske (18) from Virginia, who should be in the mix at multiple events. They have posted the fastest times in the nation in 2021 in the 100 flights by a relatively wide margin, and they are also 1-2 in 2021 in the 100 freestyle. But they’ve done all of their 21-year runs in age group matches in the comfort of their home area, largely avoiding hitting heads with the veterans they’ll face in Omaha.
Other teens with high seeds and high hopes: Nashville’s Walsh sisters (19-year-old Alex in 200 IM and 18-year-old Gretchen in freestyle sprinting and butterfly); Backstrokers Phoebe Bacon and Isabelle Stadden, 18; and Kate Douglass, a 19-year-old versatile threat.
5. Is this the swan song of Omaha as host of the trials?
Most likely. The city has embraced testing despite its partial overlap with its other signature sporting event, the Men’s College World Series, which has helped elevate it to new status. This is the fourth time trial to be held in Omaha, and the use of the downtown basketball arena to create America’s largest swimming arena has been a masterstroke.
But it’s time for what has traditionally been a national event to move on again, with many other cities bidding for 2024. Multiple sources said Illustrated Sports that the favorite place for ’24 is Indianapolis, and there are tentative plans for an even bigger stir than Omaha’s basketball stadium. Think of a soccer stadium.
Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, could offer a colossal setting. The setup for the recent Final Four could be doubled for swimming: a huge curtain in the middle of the stadium, with the competition pool on one side and the warm-up / warm-up pool on the other. With a soccer capacity of 70,000, filling nearly half of that would produce the largest swimming crowds ever.
The next Summer Olympics will be in Paris, a century after the 1924 Summer Games were held there. It’s worth noting that the United States swimming trials for those Olympics were in Indy. Is it time for another centennial event?
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.