American Women’s Swimming Depth Ratchets Up Pressure With Olympic Trials Approaching

Torri Huske, Alex Walsh & Kate Douglass will feel the pressure as they try to qualify for another Olympic team -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

American Women’s Swimming Depth Ratchets Up Pressure With Olympic Trials Approaching

The meet that all elite American swimmers have been anticipating for almost three years is now less than two months away. The stakes of that competition, set to be held in the largest venue ever to host a swim meet, cannot be overstated: up to 52 athletes will achieve their ultimate goal while dozens more will head home devastated. Fans in attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium will share in the joy of qualifying athletes while empathizing with the heartbreak of so many third and fourth-place finishers.

Perhaps you remember some of the agonizing results from the last edition of this meet in 2021: in the opening final of the meet, the men’s 400 IM, Carson Foster led for almost the entire distance, only for Chase Kalisz to take over the lead on breaststroke and then Jay Litherland to storm ahead on freestyle. Two days later in the 200 freestyle final, Foster ended up eighth, less than two tenths behind the time required to qualify for Tokyo.

Madisyn Cox was in the midst of the best season of her career when she went to Omaha, Neb., in June 2021, and down the stretch of the women’s 200 IM final, she looked to be in position to qualify for the Olympics at last. But the race tightened up considerably down the stretch, and the top-three finishers were separated by just four hundredths. But it was Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass claiming the spots on the plane to Tokyo.

And who could forget about popular 200 breaststroke specialist Will Licon, third by 14-hundredths at the 2016 Trials and then, five years later, third again by 18-hundredths. The Olympics missed twice by less than one-third of a second.

Beyond just the big names, plenty of careers will end at the Olympic Trials: consider all the college seniors and fifth-year swimmers delaying the start of their post-athletic lives by three or four months just for a chance at the most significant meet on American soil, even if they know their chances of qualifying for the Paris Games are minimal. The looming end of a swimming life adds to the overwhelming emotion that pervades the Olympic selection meet.

Through their swims over the past few months and even years, swimmers have set themselves up to be in the best form possible for Trials, but the meet will not end as planned for every top competitor. The United States is just so deep in swimming that world champions and medal contenders get left behind, whether because of one poor swim in a key moment or the exceptional efforts of their rivals.

Never has that reality been more clear than with the current state of the American women’s team.

Back in Tokyo, U.S. teenagers Walsh, Douglass, Emma Weyant, Regan Smith and Lydia Jacoby all won individual Olympic medals while Torri Huske, Phoebe Bacon and Katie Grimes narrowly missed the podium in their solo races. Huske, Claire Curzan and Bella Sims all got relay medals. While the American women won only three gold medals at that meet (Jacoby in the 100 breaststroke plus Ledecky in the 800 and 1500 freestyle), the future looked especially bright with that young core moving forward.

Today, each one of those swimmers has serious Paris ambitions. Each one would be a serious medal contender if they make the U.S. team. But it is highly unlikely that all of them will be successful in their bids to become two-time Olympians, with so few spots available.

Sure, we can consider plenty of swimmers virtual locks, particularly those who are favored in numerous events: Smith in both backstroke races plus the 200 fly, Douglass in the 200 IM and 200 breast plus the sprint freestyle events and Huske with at least three separate shots at qualifying.


Claire Curzan has her best chances of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in the backstroke events — Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

But with Smith heavily favored in both the 100 and 200 back, that leaves only one remaining Olympic spot in each race. Bacon, Rhyan White and Katharine Berkoff are backstroke specialists while Curzan’s best chance at returning to the Games will come in backstroke after she swept all three races in the stroke at the World Championships in February. In both the 100 and 200-meter events, whatever American makes the cut alongside Smith will probably be the favorite for bronze in Paris (with Smith and Kaylee McKeown near locks for the top-two spots in both events), so legitimate contenders will definitely be left behind.

In the 200 IM, three American women have been 2:08 or better this year, faster than the winning time at every previous Olympic Trials. Should Douglass and Huske miss out on the top-two here, both could and likely will make the team in other events, but the situation is more murky for Walsh if she were to end up third. Yes, she was a finalist in the 400 IM at last year’s World Championships, but Grimes and Weyant are likely the favorites in that race for Trials.

Let’s say, just for argument’s sake, that almost every swimmer mentioned here finds a spot on the Tokyo team. That means relatively few swimmers qualifying in multiple events, which creates a roster crunch: only 26 men and 26 women can make the trip to Paris, and no more than 12 of those can be relay swimmers. That reality came back to haunt Ryan Held in 2021, when his sixth-place finish in the men’s 100 free ended up not being enough to qualify for Tokyo.

Once again in 2024, American depth will put world champions and top-10 all-time performers in jeopardy of missing the Olympic team, particularly on the women’s side. As the weeks tick down toward the meeting of the country’s best swimmers in Indianapolis, remember the bitter truth that as dreams are achieved, so many others will mercilessly end, with no second chances or free passes available, whatever a swimmer has achieved in the past.

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John S
John S
1 month ago

Gretchen Walsh’s best times in 50 free, 100 free, 100 back, and 100 fly converted from yards to meters using the Swimming World converter are comfortably under the world records — especially in back and fly.

1 month ago
Reply to  John S

But her underwaters are amazing which gives her a big edge in SCY that hasn’t translated to LCM

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