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Feature by Sarah Galbavy
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 28. EVERY night at the CenturyLink Center, hours after the water wall has been turned off and finals wrapped up, there is a crowd of people still milling around. To the average passerby they might look slightly lost, but they are exactly where they want to be: by the exits. After all, everyone has to leave the building at some point, even the athletes. That's what these dedicated swim fans are banking on.
Last night's crowd was the biggest one yet. As the week progresses and the final sessions intensify, this crowd grows as well. Most wait patiently, sharpies and cameras in hand, for their favorite athlete to leave the pool area. Leaning against the back wall you will see a line of parents, champions in their own right, waiting around while their children search for that meet-making moment. That's not to say that kids are the only ones comprising this crowd of fans. It is made up of all types. I'm not ashamed to admit that I often find myself counted amongst them. As a member of this group, there are a few basic rules that I think everyone should stick to in order to make the experience as enjoyable as possible.
If you want to get an autograph, the most important thing to have is patience. At a meet like Olympic Trials, unless you are going to a scheduled autograph or photo session, you have to be prepared to wait for hours for a few seconds of a swimmer's time. The athletes are on a schedule while they are at a meet. They have obligations to uphold and their own health and well-being to think about. I don't mean to imply that they are worried fans will cause them physical harm, simply that at a meet the highest concern for an athlete is what happens in the pool. If Ryan Lochte is swimming the first event in tomorrow's prelims, he's not likely to hang around the pool to sign autographs after finals. He'll probably make his way back to the hotel to rest. As a fan you have to understand and appreciate that dedication. After all, the swimming is why you became a fan of his in the first place.
As fun as waiting around after finals can be, my secret to finding swimmers is simply this: keep your eyes open during the day. In-between prelims and finals, swimmers often find themselves with free time, and will wander around the arena to explore. When you're in the Aqua Zone, or even out on the streets, make sure to watch who is around you. You never know who you might be walking past. So far, using this method, I have run into Kaitlin Sandeno, Emily Silver, Davis Tarwater, Ian Crocker, Josh Davis, and Dana Kirk. I guarantee there are many more that I missed. It's times like these that you are likely to get a more personal experience with an athlete. There is less of a crowd so they will have more time to talk and interact with you, the fan. As always, be courteous. Don't interrupt them if they are eating or speaking with someone. Remember the first rule, stand by, and be patient.
Everyone is always on the lookout of the big names. There is definitely a thrill that comes from meeting Phelps, Lochte, or Coughlin, but unfortunately, the bigger the name the harder they are to track down. That's my other big secret: I know it's tempting to hunt down the big names, but watch for the “little guys.” They're the ones that might not have made the team, but impressed you anyway. The athletes that finish fourth or fifth in this year's Olympic Trials are likely to be the ones on the team in 2016. In 2008, Conor Dwyer was in this so-called “underdog” category, now he is set to be on the 2012 Olympic team in at least two events.
After tonight's finals, there is sure to be an even bigger crowd than yesterday. Many people will get the autograph's they are so desperately hoping for, but quite a few will walk away without them. If you fit into the latter category, don't be disheartened. Keep these few suggestions in mind, have those sharpies handy, and come back tomorrow.