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The Promise and Peril of the Olympic Swimming Trials

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The Promise and Peril of the Olympic Swimming Trials

Every four summers – COVID not withstanding –  the best swimmers in the United States travel to the Olympic Team Trials with hopes of making their childhood dreams come true and punching their ticket to the Olympic Games. 

There is a mystique around the Olympic Trials that is not seen in many other sporting events. It presents the athletes competing with the promise of accomplishing something that few get to achieve, but with that promise there also comes the possibility of peril to the greatest dream a swimmer can ever have. 






If you ask any athlete who has competed in the Olympic Swimming Trials, they will tell you that it is the most high-pressure, yet rewarding, meet a swimmer can compete in. For the athletes that have gone on to qualify for the Olympics, most will tell you that Trials are often more stressful than the actual Olympics because the pressure that surrounds the Trials is second to none. 

The 2024 Olympic Swimming Trials is set to be the largest swim meet of all-time. Taking place at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the nine-day competition will name the swimmers who will represent the United States at the Paris Olympics. 

The Promise

There really is no meet like the Olympic Swimming Trials; it truly is a spectacle. From the fire and theatrics to the large arena style video board, everything about the meet screams this is prime time.  

Take the quote from Deion “Prime Time” Sanders as an example: “If your dream ain’t bigger than you, there’s a problem with your dream,” and Olympic Trials are where dreams become reality. 

For instance, look at Lydia Jacoby. In 2021, she was a relatively unknown swimmer, only having been named to the U.S. National Junior Team in late 2019. She had qualified for Trials in the 100 and 200 breaststrokes, arguably two of the most loaded events at the Olympic Trials with names such as Lilly King and Annie Lazor headlining. Consequently, Jacoby could best be described as an underdog. 

With Trials being pushed back one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it gave Jacoby more time to prepare and better herself in the water. By the time the finals of the 100 breaststroke were set to take off, Jacoby was suddenly in a position to not only make the team but also be the best American in the event. Jacoby qualified for the Tokyo Games in the 100 breast, finishing right behind King, and at the Olympics, she didn’t only medal, but won gold in the 100 at 17 years old. 

For any Indy Trials connection, take a look at Michael Phelps. Before he went on to become the most successful swimmer of all-time, he was a 15-year-old trying to make his first Olympic Team.

Phelps’ best shot to make the 2000 Olympics came in the 200-meter fly; the favorite to win the event at not just the Trials but also the Olympics was world-record holder Tom Malchow. After Malchow, there was no clear favorite to punch a ticket to Sydney, although looking at the field, many would have put Auburn swimmer Jeff Somensatto in that second position. 

Yet, young Michael Phelps as NBC Announcer Dan Hicks said had “come out of nowhere in the past six months” and put himself in a position to make the Olympic Team. As the race developed and the last 50 meters was underway, the early edge held by Somensatto fell as Malchow came to the wall first and Phelps narrowly touched ahead of Somensatto to secure his ticket to the Sydney Games. 

It’s not only the young bucks who find themselves with dreams becoming reality. Take a look at Dara Torres. By the time 2008 Olympic Trials came around, Torres was already a four-time Olympian. Even so, it had been eight years since her last Olympic Games in 2000 and 24 years since her first Olympics in 1984. 

When it came time for her to qualify for the 2008 team at 41 years old, she didn’t only make it as a relay swimmer, she also qualified in the 50 freestyle, setting the American record in the event in the process. Torres became the oldest U.S. swimmer to ever qualify for the Olympics and became the first American swimmer to compete in five Olympiads, showing that the magic of Trials isn’t only reserved for the up -and-coming.

The Peril

While Olympic Trials allow hundreds of athletes the opportunity to make the Olympic Swimming Team, there is the reality that no more than 56 swimmers (28 female, 28 male) will make the trip to Paris. Only the top two in each individual event qualify for the team, and then finishers three up to six qualifying in relay events. 

It should be noted that before the 1980 Olympics, the U.S. used to send the top three finishers at Trials to the Olympic Games. However, following the dominance of the U.S. Men at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, where they swept the medal stand in four out of the 11 individual events, the rule was changed to allow no more than two individuals per country in any one event.

Every four years when talking about the heartbreak that occurs at Trials, one name seems to come around: Hayley McGregory. She became the definition of heartbreak when she finished third in two events at two consecutive Olympic Trials. McGregory had a successful career as a collegiate swimmer, specializing in backstroke for both the Texas Longhorns and USC Trojans. After coming up short in 2004 in the 100 and 200 backstrokes, McGregory was in her prime by the time of the 2008 Trials. 

In the preliminaries of the 100 back, she broke Natalie Coughlin‘s world record, becoming the first person to break a Coughlin world record in the event. While Coughlin would regain her record in the next heat, McGregory was the top seed following her semifinals swim. The finals proved to be the challenge for McGregory, where she was beaten by Coughlin and Margaret Hoelzer. The 200 back featured the same result, as Hoelzer touched first, followed by newcomer Elizabeth Beisel.

Hailing from Virginia, Michelle Griglione was the original two-time third-place finisher at Olympic Trials following the switch from three to two qualifying swimmers. A swimmer for Stanford University, Griglione specialized in butterfly and individual medley and at the 1988 Olympic Trials in Austin, Griglione touched third in both the 200 fly and 400 IM. While Griglione enjoyed a successful career following Trials, she also narrowly missed reaching the Games at the 1992 and 1996 Trials. 

Even though Griglione was the one of the first two-time third place finishers at Olympic Trials, she would not be the last. In total, 12 other swimmers have finished second in two events at Trials and didn’t make the Olympic Team. They include Pablo Morales (1988), Eric Wunderlich (1992), Kim Small (1992), Robert Margalis (2000), Brendan Hansen (2000), Eric Shanteau (2004), Hayley McGregory (2004), Hayley McGregory (2008), Elizabeth Pelton (2012), Bethany Galat (2016), Ross Dant (2020) and Luca Urlando (2020).

Indiana Head Coach Ray Looze once found himself in the third-place position. A swimmer at USC, many are familiar with Looze’s coaching accomplishments as the head coach of the Hoosiers. Yet at the 1992 Trials at the IU Natatorium, Looze touched third in the 400 IM, just missing out on the trip to Barcelona. 

The reality is that for the swimmers that find themselves in third place in at least one event without making the team in another, they join the long list of others who just missed making their dreams come true. As golfer Walter Hagan once said: “No one remembers who came in second,” and unfortunately this is often the case with the third-place finisher at Trials. 

Many of these swimmers would have gone on to swim in the championship final of their respective events at the Olympics, and some would have even brought home a medal. Alas, the dominance of American swimming shows that even former world-record holders find themselves at home watching the Olympic Games.

With Trials under a month away, the emotions of elation and defeat will be felt. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from the accomplishments that those competing at Trials have achieved to get there. With more than 316,000 athletes registered with USA Swimming, fewer than 1,000 will compete at Olympic Trials.

Those swimmers represent the Top-.31 percent of all of USA Swimming, showing true promise regardless of the outcome at Olympic Trials.

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