Watered Down

by Casey Barrett

The Bloating of the U.S. Olympic Trials: Many cuts were faster 20 years ago…

It’s the ultimate swim meet. The most pressure drenched, heartbreaking, dream-making competition known to swimmers. Plenty of Olympians have said it was a bigger deal to them than the actual Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Trials, where the greatest aquatic athletes from the world’s preeminent swimming nation gather every four years to vie for a few precious spots on the Team… If you’ve made it there, you’ve made it to the big time.

Except making it isn’t quite as big time as it once was.

These days, making Trials is easier than it’s ever been. In fact, in many events, the U.S. Olympic Trials cuts were faster 20 years ago. (A few examples: men’s 200 fly cut back in 1992: 2:03.19. In 2012: 2:03.99; men’s 200 back in ’92: 2:04.19. In 2012: 2:04.99)  Feel free to have a look. Current and past time standards for U.S. national meets are available right HERE on the USA Swimming website.

It’s absurd to state that making the American Trials is in any way “easy.” It remains the deepest, most brutally competitive meet there is. But over the years, those Trials have put on a few pounds. The ranks of Olympic Trials Qualifiers have ballooned. Based on the number of swimmers at the meet, it is now three times easier to get there in 2012 that it was 20 years ago in 1992. The numbers don’t lie. The cuts used to be faster, but the men and women placing first and second back then were a whole lot slower. That means that a lot less swimmers used to qualify for the meet. And the ones who did were in the game, each with a legitimate, if long shot, claim at making the Team. It was akin to making NCAA’s. About 24 swimmers per event, the ideal being three circle seated heats in prelims, no more. Now we settle in for a marathon of unseated heats before reaching those top 24…

USA Swimming’s Great Guru (I mean, Assistant Executive Director) Mike Unger laid it out for me at lunch last week. He knows these numbers off the top of his head. In 1992, there were around 500 swimmers at the meet. In ’96, that number dipped to about 400. In 2000, when USA Swimming briefly eliminated Junior Nationals, the ranks of Trials qualifiers exploded, with a meet of 1225 swimmers. When Juniors returned, that number settled back down again; in 2004, there were 730 swimmers at the Trials in Long Beach. In 2008, at the sold out Quest Center in Omaha, there were 1225 qualifiers there. And next summer, back again in Omaha, how many are expected? About 1500.

Swimmers keep getting faster, but the price of admission stays the same. Or, in the case of most of the men’s events, the price is cheaper than it was a generation ago.

There are many fine reasons for this. Indeed, the U.S. Trials is a better event now that so many are admitted. Just because it’s easier to get there does not make it lesser. In fact, quite the opposite. The meet now sells out a 12,000 seat arena. If each of those 1500 swimmers brings their mom and dad, that’s a quarter of the nightly ticket sales right there. Something like the AquaZone, that world’s fair-esque attraction in the convention hall alongside the pool, would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. That’s not a product of Michael Phelps’ presence, it’s due to the huge number of fast young swimmers now in his midst.

I’m told that some of this Trials-expansion philosophy came from Eddie Reese. He cited the example of a 16-year-old high school flyer who barely makes the Trials cut in the 100 fly, comes to the meet, places 86th, but gains the invaluable experience of being there, seeing what it takes. Four years later, that promising young flyer is now a sophomore NCAA All-American (presumably now a Longhorn, swimming for Reese!), and he’s racing into the finals with a great shot to make the Team. Did that lower standard of admission help this sample swimmer’s progression? The committee of top coaches who determine such things certainly thought so. They endorsed it 100%.

This mindset has created a curious new species of swimmer at the meet: the Trials Tourist. The swimmers who make the cuts and travel to Omaha without the slightest hope in hell of actually becoming an Olympian. Next summer, there will conservatively be about 1,000 or so Trials Tourists like this. Two-thirds of the young men and women who take their marks in Omaha will do so without any real dream of going to London.

Compare this to the men’s 100 fly back in 1992. The Trials cut was 55.59. What did it take to make the Team that year? 54.01. Just a second and a half gap between the last seed who barely qualified and the time it took to become an Olympian. A second and a half. That’s a realistic drop. A big improvement, to be sure, but nothing outlandish. Fair to say that every man in that event allowed himself to visualize making the Team and going to Barcelona.

20 years later, that 100 fly cut has become marginally faster (one of few). Now’s it’s 55.29. But what will it take to make the Team? Likely a 51-low. Four full seconds below the cut. A 54.0 won’t even be noticed by anyone beyond your coach, parents, and teammates. It will be one of many, a mid-pack, heat 4, lane 7 prelims swim.

This says an awful lot about the insane depth of swimming in America. Unger points out that when they set the Trials time standards back in 2010, they expected around 800-1000 swimmers to qualify. They were uncertain what the effect of the now-banned super suits would have on the times. Turns out those suits weren’t so valuable after all. No one expected 1500 to charge past these now pedestrian time standards. This says great things about the seemingly limitless depth in American swimming, says Unger. And the Quest Center can certainly accommodate these swelling ranks, with two 50-meter pools, another 25-meter warm-up pool, more than enough seating, and a meet spread over a long eight days.

It’s a truism in swimming that there is no more depressing place to be than on deck on the last day of Olympic Trials. It’s a time when 99% of the swimmers there are devastated, their Olympic dreams dashed. A small handful glide around deck with the new insufferable glow of the Olympian. The rest remain mere mortals. They got so close, but not far, or fast, enough. Maybe this was true back in 1992, when all the swimmers there had a right to dream of making the Team. But is that really the case these days? How crushed can the 1,000 Trials Tourists really be? It’s not like they’re arriving with realistic hopes of going to London. They’re there for the “experience.” Which is fair enough, but let’s not pretend that experience is as prestigious as it once was.

This is a time, less than seven months from those Trials, when many young swimmers are currently tapering and shaving for regional meets, trying to make those elusive cuts, trying to punch their ticket to the big one in Omaha this summer. It’s a high honor to be sure, but these days, many more will make it.

Most will be Tourists. But who will be Travelers?