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Feature by Sarah Galbavy
OMAHA, Nebraska, June 27. THERE is always an irresistible excitement surrounding swim meets that is impossible to ignore. The U.S. Olympic Trials are no different. In fact, they manage to take everything that is great about your everyday meet and intensify it to a point where you can't help but catch the feeling.
Upon walking into the CenturyLink Center you sense the buzz of activity, nerves, and joy that this level of competition brings. After what was a stressful morning of travel, when I opened the door to the Center, now plastered with a giant picture of Ricky Berens, I let out a sigh of relief. As countless wonderful memories of the 2008 Olympic Trials came flooding back, it felt a bit like coming home. That was an unforgettable meet and, if the last two days of competition are any gauge, this year won't disappoint.
When you enter the CenturyLink Center, you are greeted by crowds of people wandering every which way. Families, swim teams, and fans are all decked out in clothing to showing pride in their schools, teams, or favorite swimmers. There were some interesting homemade shirts, and quite a few eye-catching neons. Everyone has a support group; there doesn't seem to be a single competitor here that isn't represented on a shirt or sign somewhere in the crowd.
As in 2008, this year's Aqua Zone offers a myriad of things to enhance the trials experience. There are quite a few different booths at which fans are invited to play games for prizes, enter contests, and make signs to show their support for the future 2012 Olympic Team. I find that many people make a game out of seeing how much free stuff they can pick up throughout the day. There were quite a few to be seen walking around with bags of swim caps, water bottles, luggage tags, and even loaves of bread.
The autograph stage is never without a swim star and an accompanying line of fans eager to meet the greats. Today that stage was graced with stars like Ian Crocker, Rowdy Gaines, Chad La Tourette and Emily Silver. Each swimmer stayed well beyond their allotted time slots, then moved over to a separate area to take pictures with those who didn't make the cut-off in the autograph line. As seems to be the case in our sport, the athletes showed nothing but sincerity and appreciation for the attention. It's great to see.
The Michael Phelps Signature Swim Spas Challenge was an interesting and popular feature on the Aqua Zone floor. Fans were invited to don their Speedo's, hop into one of the spas, and test their stamina against Phelps. Adjacent to the spas was my favorite booth- Finding Nemo 3D: Ride The Shark. The line was never under 15 people, but it seemed worth the wait to try your turn riding Bruce the Shark. Bruce is a shark-shaped, bucking, mechanical bull. I imagine riding is almost as fun as watching everyone else give it a go. They usually fail miserably but enjoy it all the same.
My favorite thing about Olympic Trials is, of course, the swimming itself. Sitting in a crowd that is full of passionate swim enthusiasts makes the experience much more memorable. At a meet, I always try to talk to the people I'm sitting with, because you never know who they might turn out to be. Olympic Trials is the perfect example of this- it seems as if everyone in the crowd is related to, knows, or trains with one of the athletes in the water that day. Watching is much more enjoyable when you are surrounded by people who are truly invested in the outcome of the races. That's not to say that you don't run across a few people who are just pure fans. That type is out there, and they are just as passionate, but in a different way. Whatever the reason, once the races start, everyone finds themselves cheering.