Is There a More Difficult Olympic Trials Than Swimming?

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By John Lohn

OMAHA, Nebraska, June 25. From track and field to gymnastics and rowing to wrestling, no one wants to be the athlete who is narrowly denied an Olympic berth. Yet, that is the nature of sports, and regardless of the discipline, the heartache of a few can outweigh the euphoria experienced by those who achieve their Olympic dream.

The selection process for the United States Olympic Swimming Trials has been well documented through the years, and more so in the final days leading up to these Trials. But just in case you need a refresher, here it is: In order to earn an individual berth to the London Games, an athlete must finish first or second in his/her event. Everything else is the equivalent to a last-place finish.

So, as the Olympic Trials unfold over the next eight days at the CenturyLink Center, we'll have plenty of feel-good stories and several stinging tales. As we prepare for those moments, let's throw out this thought: It can be argued that no sport boasts an Olympic-selection process as difficult or potentially painful as the one used in swimming.

Let's compare, for a moment, the three sports which are considered the banner disciplines of the Olympic Games — track and field, gymnastics and swimming. In track and field, countries are able to send three athletes per event to the Games. That one extra spot over swimming is huge, especially given the United States' prowess in the pool.

Meanwhile, politics can become involved in the selection of the gymnastics team, as a three-person committee selects those who will represent the USA. Any time a committee is involved, the door is open to such angles as bias and lobbying. In swimming, there is no room for argument. The clock won't hear of it.

No, there is no sympathetic side to the swimming trials. At some point this week, it is guaranteed that someone will be locked out of the Olympics by a few hundredths of a second, maybe a hundredth. Perhaps that individual will have an opportunity to atone for the near miss in another event, and will get the job done. Perhaps, he/she will not, as was the case with Hayley McGregory four years ago in Omaha.

At the 2008 Olympic Trials, McGregory was third in both the 100 and 200 backstroke events. Making her story all the more excruciating was the fact that McGregory was the third-place finisher in both events at the 2004 Olympic Trials, too. On four occasions, McGregory saw her Olympic hopes come up one slot short. It doesn't get more painful.

Swimming is a lonely sport, evident in the training sessions which require a close friendship between the athlete and a solid black line. There are directions provided by coaches and time for chatter with teammates, but there is also a significant amount of solitary time. That isolation, alone, can make a shortcoming at the Olympic Trials even more difficult to digest. Does an athlete go back to that world, hoping to change the outcome four years later? Or, is it time to walk away? Decisions must be made.

No one — at least those who are right in the head — will ever say it is easy to qualify for a United States Olympic Team. However, by looking at various sports — in this case the Big Three of the Olympic stage — it can be argued that swimming is the toughest to make, based on the limited opportunities afforded and the hundredths of a second which separate the haves from the have nots. It's a brutal process, and one that should not be overlooked.

**When the preliminaries of the 100 butterfly were held, it was approximately 6 o'clock at night in Sweden. If Sarah Sjostrom happened to check results from Trials, she surely would have lifted an eyebrow over the spectacular effort by Dana Vollmer.

Vollmer blazed to a time of 56.59 in her prelim, finishing more than a second clear of Claire Donahue, who was second in the morning heats with a mark of 57.82. While Sjostrom is certainly a gold-medal contender in London, Vollmer will be right there. It's not out of the realm of possibility to see a 55-point effort next month.

**The biggest disappointment of the morning session was the failure of Matt McLean to qualify for the final of the 400 freestyle. Seeded second and the reigning national champion in the event, McLean managed only a ninth-place showing of 3:49.96. His time was seven hundredths shy of the final spot in the final, which went to Michael McBroom. McLean was also ninth in the 400 free at the 2008 Olympic Trials.

**At past major competitions, we've routinely presented a Question of the Day during our preliminary notebook. So, we'll keep that tradition going this week and ask our readers to weigh in on the various topics that arise. Our first query is this: What do you think of Katie Hoff's decision to bypass the 400 individual medley?

It could prove to be a wise decision by Hoff and her coach at T2 Aquatics, Paul Yetter. With the 400 freestyle scheduled for tomorrow, and the field for that event loaded with talent, Hoff will enter the race a little more fresh than if she had contested a pair of 400 medley events.

Follow John Lohn on Twitter: @JohnLohn

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