By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, June 21, 2019
It’s hard to believe we’re only a year out from 2020 Olympic Trials.
Seems like it was just last summer (and not three years ago) the pool at then-Centurylink (now CHI Health) Center in Omaha helped choose the team bound for Rio.
But a year from today, the best swimmers in the United States (and in most events the world) will take the pool and vie for their date with destiny at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
It will mark the fourth consecutive U.S. Olympic Trials – Swimming contested in Omaha, and the ongoing relationship between USA Swimming and the city has been mutually transformative.
Trials continues to set new standards and expectations internationally, and Omaha is now heralded as one of the top amateur sports cities in the United States.
A lot has happened in the sport and in the city (my hometown) over the past 11-plus years since those 2008 Trials happened in 2 million gallons of water in a temporary pool on the arena floor.
Here’s a look back at past Trials highlights and expectations for what’s shaping up to be another exciting, action-packed event.
The 2008 Beijing Olympics, as expected, became the Michael Phelps’ Olympics with his unprecedented eight gold medals in the pool.
But during Olympic Trials a few weeks earlier, the meet was shared by tremendous successes from several other athletes.
Yes, Phelps did win and qualify in five events – sweeping the individual medley and butterfly races as well as the 200 freestyle, and set new world records in the IM events – but Katie Hoff equaled him with five individual victories and Aaron Peirsol set world records of his own.
Hoff set a new world mark of her own in the 400 IM and American records in the 200 IM and 200 free and also took first in the 400 and 800 freestyles races. Peirsol won both backstroke events and set new marks in both. He would later lower both marks, and he still holds the world record in the 200.
Another enigmatic figure of these Olympic Trials was Dara Torres winning both the 50 and 100 freestyle events and setting a new American record in the 50 – qualifying for her fifth Games at 41 years old, a first for an American female swimmer. And who can forget Torres holding daughter, Tessa, as she waved to the crowd with her medal around her neck.
In many ways, the 2012 Trials belonged to the U.S. women as several stories emerged from the meet.
A fresh-faced 17-year-old Missy Franklin made the 2012 Olympic Trials her meet with victories in both the 100 and 200 back events, setting a new American record in the 100 back. She would go on to win four gold medals at the subsequent London Olympics.
After being disqualified from the 2008 Olympics for testing positive for a banned substance following Trials, Jessica Hardy found redemption with wins in the both the 50 and 100 freestyle events, making her first Olympic team. Known as a top breaststroker early in her career, she also just missed a spot in the 100 breast with a third-place finish.
And who can forget a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky – largely unknown and untested at this level prior to the meet – beating favorite Kate Ziegler to win the 800 freestyle, and then going to London and winning gold in the same event. Ledecky has now become the headliner for U.S. women’s swimming – and USA Swimming, in many ways – based on her dominance in the water since that meet.
After more than a decade away from competition, Anthony Ervin made a successful return to swimming, earning a spot on the team as a 31-year-old with his runner-up finish in the 50 free.
Phelps was his usual dominant self at his fourth-straight Trials (he qualified for the Sydney Olympics in the 200 butterfly as a 15-year-old) with four victories, but he was edged by friend and rival Ryan Lochte in the 400 IM, who enjoyed his most successful Trials with a victory in the 200 back and runner-up finishes in the 200 free and 200 IM.
Under the direction of Harold Cliff, Omaha and USA Swimming stepped up its game with this second Trials – welcoming more swimmers and spectators than ever before, having a bigger and more interactive Aqua Zone, expanding prime time television coverage and adding pyrotechnics and a water wall feature behind the medals podium. It became the most successful Trials to date.
While most of the attention at 2016 Trials focused on the return of Phelps to competitive swimming after retiring in 2012 (and rightfully so), these Trials were all about Ledecky – that and concern that only one American (Josh Prenot in the 200 breast) and no world records were set during the meet and what that might mean in Rio.
One of the most dominant swimmers in the world, Ledecky swept the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle events – matching Phelps’ three victories in the 100 and 200 fly and 200 IM events.
Maya DiRado – who announced she would retire following the 2016 Olympics – also won three events, sweeping the IM events and also winning the 200 backstroke. Abbey Weitzeil won both sprint freestyle events, and a relatively unknown Lilly King was dominant in winning both breaststroke events.
After flirting with making the 2012 team, Ryan Murphy broke through to win the 100 and 200 backstroke events, and went on to win both in Rio, and Nathan Adrian, who made the 2008 Team as a relay swimmer in his first Trials, won both the 50 and 100 freestyle events.
While the swimming was fantastic as always, what stood out about these third Trials in Omaha was the national (and local) excitement and interest in the event. NBC Sports televised every night of semifinals and finals competition and every session sold out for the first time – welcoming more than 200,000 spectators to the CenturyLink Center.
Watching the U.S. team headed for Rio walk around the pool deck, wave and thank all of the fans the final night of competition is a special memory.
With the addition of the 1500 freestyle (finally!) to the Olympic slate of events for women, next year’s Olympic Trials will feature Ledecky more than ever before.
She is expected to compete in (and sweep) the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 free events – which would definitely be unprecedented at Trials (although she did it at 2015 World Championships and just missed doing it again in 2017).
With the absence of Phelps for the first time at Trials since 1996, other swimmers besides Ledecky will need to step up – and there is definitely some star power to represent the deepest, most talented swimming team in the world.
Among those who will shine brightly are Caeleb Dressel, who will swim to have the chance to equal his seven gold medals at 2017 Worlds in Tokyo. King is back and should be just as dominant if not more than ever in her breaststroke events, and Murphy should be at the top of his game in the back events.
As he has shown over the past two World Championships, Chase Kalisz is equally dominant in the IM events, and Cody Miller, Kevin Cordes, Nic Fink and Prenot should jockey for top positions in the breaststroke events.
And not to be forgotten is current Olympic and World Champion Simone Manuel, who is always a force in the sprint freestyle events.
Matt Grevers, who surprisingly missed making his third Olympic Team in 2016, has been swimming fast and will be a force to make his fourth team at 35 years old in Tokyo. And despite being absent from most international swim meets since his gold medal in the 50 free at the Rio Games, Ervin plans to compete and is always a wild card when he swims even though he’ll be 39 in 2020.
One of the most exciting races of the meet should be the women’s 100 back, where Olivia Smoliga is the defending champion, but Kathleen Baker is the world record-holder and won silver in the event in Rio. Someone to watch in this event as well as the 200 back and 100 fly (as well as sprint freestyles) is Regan Smith, who will be 18 next summer and have two World Championship meets under her belt.
Two veterans who are poised to make their first Olympic team include Zane Grothe, who has been the dominant U.S. man in the distance freestyle events the past few years, Annie Lazor in the 200 breast and Lisa Bratton in the 200 back.
As is the case with every Olympic Trials, one of the most exciting parts of the competition is the up-and-coming swimmers who enjoy breakthrough swims to make the team. Who might be 2020’s Jay Litherland or Breeja Larson to make the team? Gianluca Urlando has been swimming strong lately, as has Smith, Justin Wright, Isabelle Stadden and Jack Levant, among others.
No matter what happens next summer in Omaha, history has proven it’s going to be a fast, exciting 8 days.
Tickets are available for purchase starting July 1 at (sftest.usaswimming.org/trials), and if 2016 is any indication, they will sell out fast. Don’t wait to get yours.