U.S. Olympic Trials Notes: Should Wave I Stay?; How Many First-Time Olympians Will Be Named?

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

U.S. Olympic Trials Notes: Should Wave I Stay?; How Many First-Time Olympians Will Be Named?

Wave I of the United States Olympic Trials concluded earlier this week in Omaha, Nebraska with a shortened event schedule compared to the typical, eight-day setup. It was a different feel from a normal Olympic Trials – with no national teamers and a handful of fans. But the overall product was still exciting, and swimming was on TV four nights in a row. The question has to be asked: Is a two-wave Olympic Trials the way of the future or does it die along with COVID?

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing so much uncertainty for the sporting world in 2021, many fans were concerned with how USA Swimming could conduct a safe Olympic Trials this year.

How would all the qualified athletes be able to fit in the two 50 meter pools for warmups? How would seating work in the stands? It was not feasible to make Trials a regional competition by splitting the meet in two – with some contenders for the Olympic team in one place and others in a different venue. It wouldn’t have been a fair way to select the team.

USA Swimming eventually decided on dividing the meet into two “waves,” with a faster set of cuts created to meet the 41st-seeded time, in order to select the team with a lesser amount of swimmers. Those remaining athletes with Trials cuts would still get to compete in Omaha, albeit not in the same capacity with the members of the Olympic team roaming the deck alongside them.

USA Swimming also provided a little incentive to the Wave I meet, with the top two finishers in each A-Final earning the opportunity to race in Wave II, thus giving the athletes in each final the feel of what fighting for a spot on the Olympic team is like. What looked like a glorified U.S. Open on paper quickly felt like a real Olympic Trials with something at stake in each A-Final.

Many of the swimmers who competed in Wave I got the invaluable experience of gaining a second swim at Trials, while also racing on TV and earning the opportunity to be interviewed. It was something they wouldn’t have gotten at a regular Olympic Trials. Many of the athletes who finished first or second celebrated as if they made the Olympic team, and it gave them the euphoric feeling of making the Olympic Trials cut for the first time all over again.

With many of the athletes and coaches praising the Wave I format, did USA Swimming successfully stumble into a new format for Olympic Trials to fight overcrowding?

Growing Pains

With so many athletes qualifying for the meet at the last three Trials, there have been growing concerns over the size of the meet. In the men’s 400 IM, 66 athletes swam the race in 2000, 26 swam in 2004, 55 in 2008, 113 in 2012, and 94 in 2016.

In 2020, 44 are on the psych sheet for Wave II while an additional 16 raced in Wave I. Sixty swimmers is considerably fewer than the last two Trials, but there has been debate over just how many heats should be contested at a meet like this to appease the fans. Ultimately, the more people that make Trials, the more tickets are likely to sell, and the more likely that people will come back to each session. But if fans are being turned off by heats and heats of the 400 IM, then maybe the amount of athletes competing needs to be revisited. USA Swimming has solved this issue with the 400s specifically, with the fastest five heats swum first to ensure more rest for those who make finals. The rest of the heats are held after the session, but it is still a topic of discussion: Is it the right move to value quantity over quality?

So with Wave II starting this weekend with less athletes on deck, did COVID accidentally allow USA Swimming to discover a way that minimizes the overcrowding at Olympic Trials? Of course, athletes who make the Olympic Trials cuts each quad make the meet with the excitement of racing alongside their idols. But with the incentive of racing in the CHI Health Center, that may be enough for those who make the meet.

The simple solution may be to just make the cuts faster and faster, but with the amount of excitement we saw out of the athletes in Wave I, is that the move for the future? It is certainly up for debate, and maybe a two-wave Trials will fade as more and more get vaccinated and larger indoor gatherings are permitted. But with Wave I being a success, perhaps it can be revisited in the future.

Wave II:

How Many Defending Gold Medalists Move On?


Simone Manuel. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Looking ahead to next week’s Wave II meet, the United States will finally get a picture of what the Olympic team for Tokyo will look like. After nearly two years of “that will be a great race at Trials” conversations that have floated around pool decks, fans will finally get a finite list of the 52 men and women who will represent the Stars and Stripes on the sport’s biggest stage in Tokyo.

Five of the Rio gold medalists, Anthony ErvinLilly King, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel and Ryan Murphy, will run through the U.S. Trials gauntlet next week to try to defend their gold medals in Tokyo. Where are they in their Olympics preparation and what are their chances for repeating?

Individual Rio medalists Nathan Adrian, Kathleen BakerChase KaliszCody Miller, Josh Prenot and Leah Smith will also be in attendance in Omaha to try to get back on the podium individually.

Ten of those eleven aforementioned swimmers have made at least one of the last two World Championships teams, with only Ervin not doing so. More, eight of those swimmers have made the last three major U.S. teams, including the last two Worlds and the 2018 Pan Pacs.

How Many First-Time Olympians Will There Be In Tokyo?


Josh Matheny. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In 2016, 30 first-time Olympians were on the roster for Rio, while 27 were in London, 24 were in Beijing, and 26 were in Athens. That is an average of 27 first-time Olympians since 2004, and with an extra year of preparation, that number of first-timers could potentially grow higher in 2021. In 2016, no high schoolers made the team, while three high school girls made the team in 2012 and four made the team in 2008.

Current high schoolers Gretchen Walsh, Claire Curzan and Torri Huske are all popular picks to make their first team as they were high school students this year, while on the men’s side, names like David Curtiss and Josh Matheny come to mind as outside shots to make this year’s team before they head off to college.

Which Big Names Will Be Left at Home?

The harsh nature of the U.S. Olympic Trials is that only two swimmers make the team in each individual event, and those that come the most prepared will be granted a spot in Tokyo. We have seen it time and time again – big names being left at home from Trials because they didn’t finish in the top two.

In 2016, reigning Olympic gold medalists Matt Grevers and Tyler Clary finished in the devastating third spot in their respective events. In 2012, Katie Hoff and Elizabeth Pelton didn’t hit their desired results, leaving them off the plane to London, while in 2008, Hayley McGregory and Lara Jackson didn’t make the team for Beijing after setting American records during the heats of Trials.

There’s bound to be a big name left at home this year. Such is the harsh nature of the Olympic Trials. Who that is remains to be seen.

The Trials will be held June 13–20 and finals will be live on NBC each night.

Wave II Olympic Trials TV Schedule:

*tape-delayed coverage

  • Sunday, June 13
    • Qualifying Heats – NBCSN; 5:30 p.m. ET*
      • Men’s 400m IM, Women’s 100m Butterfly, Men’s 400m Freestyle, Women’s 400m IM, Men’s 100m Breaststroke
    • Finals – NBC; 8 p.m. ET/PT
      • Men’s 400m IM, Men’s 400m Freestyle, Women’s 400m IM
  • Monday, June 14
    • Qualifying Heats – NBCSN; 6:30 p.m. ET*
      • Women’s 100m Backstroke, Men’s 200m Freestyle, Women’s 100m Breaststroke, Men’s 100m Backstroke, Women’s 400m Freestyle
    • Finals – NBC; 8 p.m. ET/PT
      • Women’s 100m Butterfly, Men’s 100m Breaststroke, Women’s 400m Freestyle
  • Tuesday, June 15
    • Qualifying Heats – NBCSN; 6:30 p.m. ET*
      • Women’s 200m Freestyle, Men’s 200m Butterfly, Women’s 200m IM, Women’s 1,500m Freestyle
    • Finals – NBC; 8 p.m. ET/PT
      • Men’s 200m Freestyle, Women’s 100m Backstroke, Men’s 100m Backstroke, Women’s 100m Breaststroke
  • Wednesday, June 16
    • Qualifying Heats – NBCSN; 6:30 p.m. ET*
      • Men’s 100m Freestyle, Women’s 200m Butterfly, Men’s 200m Breaststroke, Men’s 800m Freestyle
    • Finals – NBC; 8 p.m. ET/PT
      • Women’s 200m Freestyle, Men’s 200m Butterfly, Women’s 200m IM, Women’s 1500m Freestyle
  • Thursday, June 17
    • Qualifying Heats – NBCSN; 6:30 p.m. ET*
      • Women’s 100m Freestyle, Men’s 200m Backstroke, Women’s 200m Breaststroke, Men’s 200m IM
    • Finals – NBCSN; 8 p.m. ET
      • Men’s 800m Freestyle, Men’s 200m Breaststroke, Women’s 200m Butterfly, Men’s 100m Freestyle
  • Friday, June 18
    • Qualifying Heats – NBCSN; 6 p.m. ET*
      • Women’s 800m Freestyle, Men’s 100m Butterfly, Women’s 200m Backstroke
    • Finals – NBC; 9 p.m. ET/PT
      • Women’s 200m Breaststroke, Men’s 200m Backstroke, Men’s 200m IM, Women’s 100m Freestyle
  • Saturday, June 19
    • Qualifying Heats – NBCSN; 6:30 p.m. ET*
      • Men’s 50m Freestyle, Women’s 50m Freestyle, Men’s 1500m Freestyle
    • Finals – NBC; 9 p.m. ET
      • Men’s 100m Butterfly, Women’s 200m Backstroke, Women’s 800m Freestyle
  • Sunday, June 20
    • Finals – NBC; 8:15 p.m. EST
      • Men’s 50m Freestyle, Women’s 50m Freestyle, Men’s 1500m Freestyle


  1. Stephen Henderson

    Fascinating article. I loved the Wave 1 experience and think it provides a unique opportunity for youngsters to make a final and have the red carpet treatment at the coveted Trials. I also think it was great for college upperclassmen who got an evening swim to close our their careers or OT showings. I hope the multiple waves remains in future quads! Mary Lou Henderson

  2. Mark Johnson

    I think it’s a great idea. Creates a lot of excitement in swimmers and allows them that chance to get a second swim when they most likely would just be swimming prelims alone and their done.

  3. Liz Hudson

    Enjoyed watching Wave 1 for sure!!

  4. Scott Richardson

    Nope. How many of the wave 1 qualifiers might have been wave 2 surprise winners if they had not have had to taper, compete, train/taper, compete again in a 2 week span versus the automatic wave 2 kids who didn’t have to compete last week.

    • Cris Williams

      Scott Richardson agree. This should be a one-off/never again sort of thing.

    • Scott Richardson

      Cris Williams and again congrats to Lily for making the team.

  5. Tammy Arbogast

    Yeah you got the OT cut!!!!! Nevermind. It was fine for covid and much appreciated, but please please no thanks.

  6. Kyle Sockwell

    An unnecessary complexity added to an already complex sport to the casual fan.

  7. Kele Guyer

    Interview the swimmers who participated in wave one and get their opinion. Then Interview everyone who managed it. I’m sure whoever hosts next time would love the revenue if the community has the bandwidth to handle two waves! We enjoyed watching teammates swim it while we were at our own meet locally. It was inspiring for the swimmers!

  8. Eric Hawkins

    Unfortunate for the 3rd-41st place swimmers that won’t get nearly the media coverage that the top 2 in wave 1 did.

  9. Michael Murray

    The wave 1 idea is an abomination. Its great for the winners who will eventually come in 40th next week, but I think they would even appreciate being able to swim prelim heats against the best swimmers.