By Tito Morales
LONG BEACH, Calif., July 8. NO matter the price. No matter the pain. No matter the time. It's all about space. Space for only two swimmers per event to make the US Olympic Swim Team. Space for only twenty-six men and 26 women to make the team.
This is when it all becomes about racing.
Records are nice and they make tidy little headlines, but the meet organizers at the Olympic Trials might just as well shut down the timing system.
In the sport of competitive swimming, it’s way too easy to get bogged down by the clock. From our earliest meets as age group novices, in fact, we’re taught to strive for time standards. First there’s “B,” then “A,” “AA,” and so on and so forth — all the way up the ladder to the incredibly challenging cut-offs for this, the most competitive of all domestic meets.
The finals of the US Olympic Trials, though, are different.
The Trials are the Trials, in part, because they’re about racing. The eight incredibly gifted swimmers who have reached this most sacred of places all have one singular goal: to get across the pool faster than the seven beside them.
You got game? Well, now’s the time to show it. Don’t leave it in the media room. Don’t leave it in the locker-room. Don’t leave it on the deck.
You don’t get to this level without being super-talented. You don’t get past this level without being super-ruthless.
On Tuesday, three of our most newly-minted Olympians — Michael Phelps, Klete Keller, and Kaitlin Sandeno — dared the others in the pool to try to take it away from them. They emphatically assumed control of their events from the opening strokes and bellowed, “This race is mine, and I’ll die defending it.”
Of the trio, Phelps and Keller, of course, triumphed — and, not surprisingly, in record-breaking fashion.
Clobber the fellas next to you, and it’s a good bet you’ll smash some type of record in the process.
Sandeno, also on American record pace halfway through her 400 I.M., watched helplessly as Katie Hoff essentially barked, “Wait a minute! Not so fast…”
Hoff wasn’t swimming against the clock. She was racing against Sandeno. When the two of them hit the freestyle leg nearly even, it almost appeared as if they were the only ones in the entire complex. And, in each other’s minds, they probably were.
Erik Vendt, Larsen Jensen — they’re moving on to Athens because they’re equally as tenacious. Vendt, who seemed to be an ocean behind Phelps by the time his patented breaststroke leg came around, still refused to concede the race. And it was clear to all those who watched the race that he wasn’t merely battling for a spot on the team. He was continuing to fight for the win. Ditto with Jensen, who was determined to make Keller bleed for every millimeter of his victory.
This is why these six are through. This is why they’re 2004 Olympians.
The Trials are a type of perverse game of musical chairs. When the song stops, there are only two seats left on the overseas plane.
Is it a callous system? Yes. Uncompromising? Of course. Inflexible? There are few things in life that could possibly be more so.
But this is the way it is. It’s the way the Trials have always been, and the way they should always remain.
Throw away the clock.
This is about the racing.