In the age of Michael Phelps, the attempts had grown into a full-blown spectacle with pyrotechnics on the pool deck and some of the fastest swimmers in the world providing the fireworks in the water. The nationally televised meeting will be held for eight days to a sold-out audience and will preview the athletes who will soon become Olympic stars.
Part of the charm of the trials was the sheer number of participants, the vast majority with little to no chance of making the Olympic team. While USA Swimming is aiming for a number closer to 1,200 qualifiers, more than 1,700 swimmers earned a place in the exams in 2016, of which less than 9 percent had actually completed an Olympic qualifying period.
USA Swimming prefers to keep its doors open as much as possible and is hosting a preliminary meeting – a “Wave I” event – for about 600 lower-seeded swimmers from June 4-7 in Omaha this year. The top two participants in each event will advance to the showcase event – the “Wave II” meeting – on June 13th and 20th, where they will ride in the same pool as Olympic medalists Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Lochte.
“It’s the greatest spectacle in swimming,” said Tim Hinchey, president and chief executive officer of USA Swimming, in an interview on Tuesday. “The reality is, as important as it is to create a fantastic Super Bowl-like environment for our top elite athletes – and we know the experience has absolutely translated into gold medals and Olympic results – we know it too for those 12 or more, the 13-year-old who walks into this stadium and experiences these types of meetings is also aiming for the next games. It has to touch both sides. “
Hinchey said the two meetings will look and feel the same – “I think it’s going to feel like a big event,” he said – and customizing the test format is the best way to safely accommodate that many attendees. More than 1,300 swimmers have already posted times fast enough to qualify for the exams and USA Swimming faced the possibility of an overcrowded pool deck and increased virus exposure for hopefuls in Tokyo.
The organizers are still working on a detailed health and safety plan and no decision has yet been made about who will attend the trials. Hinchey said he was “cautiously optimistic” that at least some fans can attend the trials in person. Nearly 200,000 spectators attended the eight-day event five years ago, but USA Swimming has not yet put tickets on sale for the June exams. Omaha local regulations allow 75 percent capacity in the CHI Health Center, which usually houses the Creighton University basketball teams, but also hosts concerts, rodeos, and professional wrestling events.
NBC is expected to continue broadcasting the Wave II showcase event, but USA Swimming hasn’t cleared the schedule for its preliminary Wave I meeting.
While a vaccine is being given to sections of the population, organizers couldn’t expect it to be widely available by June and plan that its participants and officials will not be vaccinated just yet.
“I think our current position, at least from USA Swimming’s point of view, is to get in line where it’s appropriate,” said Hinchey. “We’re not going to jump in front of those who need it now. … We’ll wait for our turn, and if it is our turn before the exams for our athletes, coaches and officials to make it, fantastic. “
As USA Swimming grew in membership with Phelps’ domination, the marquee blossomed – it got bigger, more elaborate, and accepted more competition.
“The gift of God, Michael Phelps – that’s what he did for us,” said Chuck Wielgus, former USA Swimming executive director, in 2013. “He brought people who weren’t swimming family members through the door.”
While almost half of this year’s Omaha contestants won’t swim at the marquee, they’ll still get a taste of the exams.
“We want to keep that promise for the novice, not just the veteran, and I think we can do it,” said Hinchey. “We know the 13-year-old may not have an impact this year, but history tells us it will have a huge impact on the next Olympics. Since we already know our next quad has dropped from four to three years, this is important. “