It’s Time to Change America’s Olympic Trials Time Standards

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Column by Nathan Jendrick

OMAHA, Nebraska, July 3. NO meet can be run perfectly; there will always be a few unknowns that catch people off guard and cause a little unrest among participants. We expect that. But for the most part, swim meets can be run relatively pain free and be a shining example of professional sporting events.

For all intents and purposes, the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha was a fantastic meet. The city, albeit obnoxiously hot and humid (at least to a Seattle native), was gorgeous–from a beautiful pool to large, vivid graphics throughout the city–and everything that the organizers could control was a treat for both participants and spectators. But what they couldn't control was a mess: The number of athletes qualifying to swim at the Trials. And for the sake of the sport, this absolutely must be remedied by 2016.

The time standards, in general, are particularly slow to qualify for such an elite meet. They are, in fact, the same standards used for this year's US Open, yet the degree of prestige differentiating the two is huge. Because of the comparatively slow cuts, 1,831 of the athletes who had the option to swim in the meet, chose to do so. It was record participation for an American Trials. Yet, a massive number of them didn't even clear the qualifying time standard during Trials, and that does nothing good for the sport. The spectators, admittedly, may not notice much beyond sitting through a number of less-than-entertaining heats of each event, but the real problem is in the warm-up pool.

It wasn't uncommon in the long-course lanes to see seven or eight athletes waiting on the wall. They weren't there because they were resting; it was because the lane was so crowded they had nowhere to go. Quite a few athletes were relegating their warm-ups to single laps with ample breaks in-between because it was the best they could make of a bad situation. This isn't acceptable. It doesn't seem crazy to ask that if we're trying to put on the most elite meet in our country that we could ensure our best athletes are able to do something as simple as their normal warm-up.

It may sound like whining for the sake of whining, but this was a huge complaint among swimmers and coaches every morning of the meet. I won't go so far as to say an inefficient warm-up pool was the reason many people are calling these Trials “slow,” but as a swimmer myself, I know that it's much harder to put out a best time if a swimmer isn't warmed up.

While toughening the time standards for the Trials would certainly cut down on the number of participants, there are other, or additional, ways this could be solved: Minimize the potential for athletes to swim slower than the cut on the big stage. We allow athletes to qualify until a week before the meet starts. This means hundreds of athletes are trying to get in at the last moment, tapering for a meet just so they can qualify. Physically, they're likely not going to be able to swim as fast at Trials seven days later.

In the women's 100 breaststroke, for example, there were 153 athletes competing. Only 1-83 swam faster than the cut that got them there. At least a few squeaked into their qualification just days prior to the entry deadline. And it goes for both genders, of course: only 99 of 167 swam the cut or faster in the men's 50 free. Most events saw a similar discrepancy. This does not represent what these Trials are meant to be.

Another idea is to reduce the length of time allowed to qualify. For these Trials, it was open as early as October 1, 2009. Plenty of athletes qualified around that time, took two years off, and came back only to say they competed at Trials. Again, the meet is meant to pit the best of the best against one another to represent America on the Olympic stage. It isn't a place to get a proverbial passport stamp and brag about simply having visited. A couple of coaches around the warm-up pool suggested cutting the qualifying period to one-year; this is reasonable.

Rowdy Gaines, as he suggested on the Swimming World Radio program Off the Wall, suggested athletes have to swim a qualifying standard twice before being allowed to compete at Trials. Showing consistency would enhance the quality of the meet exponentially and do a great deal to raise the level of prestige for the event and for the sport. It would be a unique set of standards for a unique type of meet.

No matter how well a meet can be run, they can only work within the boundaries they are given. Omaha did a fantastic job in its sophomore running of the biggest meet the United States could throw at it. But unless someone wants to throw a huge portion of those thousands of entry fees toward adding an additional long-course warm-up pool, something has to be done to reduce the number of athletes just passing through Trials.

2012 was a stellar event, and everyone involved deserves applause. But as the saying goes, “you can always better your best.”

Cheers to Omaha — maybe we'll meet again in 2016.

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