History of Swimming

Today marks the start of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, in Omaha, Nebraska. This will be my fifth trip to the Trials, as our family has been attending every edition since 1996, in support of a family member who has competed for a coveted spot on the U.S. Olympic Swim Team.  In some ways it seems like a long time and in others, the blink of an eye. Regardless, it’s been quite a ride.

As someone who grew up swimming—as both an elite swimmer herself, and then as an ardent fan and supporter—I’ve been able to recite qualifying times, debate medley strengths, and relay alignment strategy, much in the same way a group of grade school boys would argue baseball card statistics, while waiting for the morning school bus to arrive. The facts, the figures, the stats, the history…all of it really, is engrained in who I am and who we all are really, as a product of the swimming machine. I say swimming machine, and not swimming community, because at the highest level, it’s not about comradery and friendship; it’s about forbearance and fortitude. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself because this entire week will be a special Olympic Trials edition of Genuine Joy.

Over the next few days, the posts on Genuine Joy will be solely dedicated to Swimming, a sport in which the Phelps family has been involved for 25 years; one that has taught me goal setting, time management, dedication and which from the age of 5, taught me that talent alone, does not make a champion; it comes from some place much deeper.

Taking a step back for a moment, I believe that in order to understand the present Olympic Trials and the current generation of protagonists, you have to understand the past. Ironically, however, you can’t understand or appreciate the past (and therefore the present) if you don’t have a working knowledge of the overall structure of the sport of swimming and of the Trials themselves, so that is where we will start today: Structure and Organization.

The Olympic Swimming Trials are an eight-day event, running from Monday, June 25 through Monday July 2, 2012. This year, they are being held in Omaha, Nebraska but for many years, this meet was held at the IUPUI pool in Indianapolis, Indiana—home of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In March of this year, we visited the Indy pool for the last time, which was both bittersweet and surreal at the same time. You have to remember, as a family, we have been traveling to Indy for the last 20 years; we watched Whitney make her first World Championships team in 1994 and a few years later, in 2000, Michael, made his first U.S. Olympic Team, as a wide-eyed 15 year-old kid. For me, when you do something for 20 of the 34 years that you have been alive, it’s more than a tradition, in many ways, it’s self-defining.

Outside of our familial attachment to the event, the Olympic Swimming Trials has had a rich and storied place in the American sports landscape. The first edition was contested in 1920 in Alameda, California. Over its 92-year history, the meet has undergone tremendous change, from format, to scope, to sponsorship, to the competitors themselves.  On several occasions, the Men’s and Women’s Olympic Trials were even held independent of one another.

One of the most common questions is how someone can even swim in the Olympic Trials. Do they have to be invited? Can they simply register like a recreational open water swim or a running marathon? Is there an age cut-off (maximum or minimum) for competitors?

The answer is in fact pretty simple: to compete at the Olympic Trials, you must swim a certain time in order to qualify.  The times are established by USA Swimming and competitors must achieve that minimum time in their respective event in advance of the Trials themselves.

Over the years, the times have gotten faster, as swimmers continue to evolve as athletes while at the same time, funding and grass-roots support along with youth-based emphasis for the sport continues to broaden. It’s a clear-cut calculus: more kids, starting at younger ages, training harder and longer than their generational predecessors will result in one thing: bigger, faster, stronger swimmers.

Once a swimmer makes the Trials time “cut” they are cleared to swim the event(s) in which they qualify. In terms of qualifiers, there are some events, like the 50 Freestyle—which is one length of a long-course pool—that can have a massive field of upwards of 100 entrants! No, it’s not an “every man for himself” race for humanity, like an open-water start in a triathlon. When it comes to pool-based swimming, 100 swimmers simply means innumerable waves of preliminary heats (called ‘prelims’) which will then determine who advances to the semi-finals (‘semis’) and later, to the finals. It is the final round, from which the actual two-man Olympic selection is made for each individual sport.

Sounds simple, right? Not even close.

Qualifying for the Olympic Team isn’t one swim and you’re done.  The swimmer must swim the event (with the exception of events 400 meters or longer) three times, with the third and final swim as the decision point for who is named to the team in said event. Events 400 meters or longer are swam twice.

The morning swimming session, prelims, is where all swimmers get the chance to make it back to the evening swim, semi-finals.  The selection is made based on the top 16 fastest swimmers, who will then advance to the semis, that same night. From the semis, the fastest eight swimmers then advance to the finals, which is held the following night.

For example, if I swim the 100 Butterfly in prelims on Monday morning and place in the top sixteen times, then I will advance to the 100 Butterfly semis on Monday night.  Once in the semis, on Monday night, if I produce one of the fastest eight times that evening, then I will advance to the finals the following night, for a chance at the top two places, which are named to the Olympic team.

So to recap, in order to make the Olympic Team out of the Trials, you are swimming the same event three times; and that’s only for ONE race.  Imagine if you’re trying to qualify in two events.  Or five events. Or eight. During the course of the week, a swimmer who races in seven events will swim approximately 30,000 meters, or roughly 20 miles.

And that’s just the physical component.

Like any sport, there’s a mental toughness in swimming that corresponds with the physical demands.  You have to believe that you can win, or else you won’t.  You have to quiet your mind and be so still, that you have a laser focus to compete in front of 14,000+ people.  You have to know that you are the best.

Many swimmers have superstitions.  They eat the same thing before every race; they wear the same jacket to every race, which happens to be the same one they wore the first time they broke a World Record or won an event in a major competition; some slap their arms behind their back or make sure their feet are situated just right on the starting blocks.  Most, if not all, listen to music, which can get the adrenaline pumping or help them to relax and focus on the job at hand.

The most important thing to remember, about all of the swimmers at Trials, is that they are the best of the best.  They are among the top 100 swimmers in the world and they’ve all worked hard to get to where they are today.

So, turn on the TV and watch the U.S. Swimming Trials, airing every night on NBC and cheer on the swimmers.  Hear their stories and get to know who they are inside, and outside, the pool…

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