Feature by Mallory Cage
COLUMBIA, South Carolina, October 27. THREE are just under 250 days until the U.S. Olympic Trials. That's almost 35 weeks or eight months. To some that seems like a lifetime away, but for the elite few that have Trials cuts, it almost doesn't seem like enough time.
Between trying to get the training they need, to competing long course as an attempt to practice their race skills, it's hard to imagine worrying about school or even another competition season in between.
But for many of the athletes that will attend the U.S. Olympic Trials this is the reality. Only a very small portion of swimmers are pro athletes. Most are college and some are still in high school. For these athletes, there is typically another team counting on them to swim well.
Florida State head coach Neil Harper estimates that almost two-thirds of all of the athletes at U.S. Olympic Trials will be college athletes. This means that a large number of NCAA programs all across the country will be adjusting their training schedules or even competing without some of their best swimmers as the athletes prepare for what could be one of the biggest moments of their athletic careers.
"It definitely impacts us but I think that's part of our identity too," said Harper. "Swimming in the Olympics is always the first six or seven days, it's a sport that America always does well at, so swimming is high profile and so having swimmers on your team that are at the Olympics is good profile for your team. "
South Carolina head coach McGee Moody agrees, acknowledging that the exposure reaches more than just swimmers.
"If they step up with a South Carolina cap on, so many people see that and it's so important for people to see that because it sends messages not only to athletes; it sends messages to parents, it sends messages to club coaches that see that and go this is a program that takes what they do seriously not only during the academic year but they have high expectations during the summer."
And high expectations for this summer may mean simply getting kids to Trials or even reaching as far as sending someone off to London as a part of the Olympic team. These goals can change the way a program is viewed so college coaches take the opportunity very seriously and put a lot of thought into team training plans.
"I think the main thing is making sure our training is as individualized as possible because especially in Olympic years people are headed in a lot of different directions," said Moody. "I think it's our job as coaches, not just here at South Carolina, but at every program in the NCAA to make sure that every person has the opportunity to swim at their highest level."
Each person's highest level is different and so are the steps taken to get there. Some athletes elect to compete with and focus solely on their NCAA team until after conference and NCAAs, others may choose to attend a few long course meets during the year when they aren't competing for their school and yet others may take the year off from NCAA competition and take an Olympic redshirt in an attempt to focus their efforts solely on their Olympic run.
"You have to kind of weigh the positives and the negatives with each individual. You look at it in terms of is this going to put this person in the best position at Olympic Trials to be the best that they can be and in some cases the answer is no because that person needs to be in that team structure. That person does not train well by themselves, which a lot of times someone doing an Olympic redshirt is going to have to do," said Moody.
Those positives and negatives can also affect your team as a whole.
"As an NCAA coach it obviously affects you because it affects your better swimmers, swimmers that can impact your program," said Harper. "Olympics are the biggest thing for our sport so you have to put those first and sometimes that can jeopardize your season, the end of the season."
An Olympic redshirt means an athlete cannot compete for an NCAA program at all. No dual meets, no conference meet and no NCAAs. This could mean a team may be down one or more of their major point scorers.
This is exactly the case at South Carolina. Michael Flach, the team's only male swimmer to make NCAAs last year has elected to take an Olympic redshirt. Flach, who advanced past prelims in multiple events at U.S. Nationals last summer, is in a prime position to advance at trials as well.
"You can tell that it's just a different year all around the sport," said Flach. "This is a year where there is a lot more going on than just college swimming. Imagine if the Super Bowl was every four years, the anticipation that's been building for this year and now it's finally come."
Flach, Moody and Flach's group coach, Jason Memont, spent countless hours weighing the pros and cons of him taking the redshirt. Everything had to be taken into account from the changes in his training to how it affects the team.
"There were a ton of things I considered. Drawbacks for me were really the fact that I wouldn't be able to compete with my teammates and that I'd have to sit out a year; knowing that I'd have to sit at home while they get to race; knowing that I wouldn't be able to compete with the seniors on this team that I've become so close with-knowing that I wouldn't be able to send them off the way that I would have liked," said Flach. "We knew that this would mean a lot of changes in my training. I was going to have to do some things that I wouldn't want to do normally. But it's something that in the long run will hopefully pay off. "
By taking the redshirt, Flach gave up any chance to compete in any NCAA competition this year but will instead attend many of the Grand Prix series meets to work on perfecting his long course race strategies.
"My passion for the sport and my love for the sport, it goes a little deeper than college swimming. I love to compete on the national level too. I have just as much fun in the summer against post grads and professionals as I do during the school year racing against other college teams and at SECs and NCAAs," said Flach.
Some of the positives of redshirting come in terms of planning. By choosing not to compete for his school, Flach will not taper for SECs or NCAAs in the spring which in turn means he won't have to worry about getting back to top training after resting either.
"For the folks that might be redshirting that changes their whole season. They don't have an NCAA or SEC meet in March that they have to rest for. So it changes the dynamic of the planning," said Moody. "So yes while we are focused on SECs and NCAAs there is a greater focus that comes along later in the summer."
That greater focus, however, comes at a price. Teams all across the country are facing similar situations to the one in South Carolina. They are all competing without some of their best swimmers and Flach acknowledges that telling his teammates was one of the hardest parts of this decision.
"I tried to put myself in their perspective and I could see how some of them, especially the seniors could be a little disappointed because it's their last chance and obviously they're going to keep going, they don't take the year off just cause I'm out," said Flach. "At first I was a little worried that some of them would be disappointed but after I told them I kind of questioned why I was even thinking that in the first place. Everyone backed me up and it was a pretty cool moment for me to get to see my teammates back me up like that. I was really proud to be a Carolina Gamecock because they were so supportive. "
Redshirting isn't the only adjustment teams are dealing with because of the Olympics; many swimmers are electing to continue competing for their collegiate team while also preparing for what will come in the summer.
While the U.S. Trials are not until June, many international athletes will have to make adjustments during the NCAA competition season to put themselves in the best position to make their home country's team.
"For our international kids we have to make sure that one they meet the criteria that their countries require, if their country requires that they qualify between late November and early March then we have to make sure that they get to a FINA meet that allows them to qualify them for those times," said Moody.
Both Moody and Harper have had to plan for extra meets throughout the year and adding an extra meet isn't as simple as it sounds.
"If you just try to tack on another meet without changing what you're doing it could change your entire season," said Moody. "There are going to be times where those kids, even if they aren't doing the Olympic redshirt, may have to be pulled away for a weekend in order to get to a meet. "
And this was exactly the case in mid-October when Florida State and South Carolina met in Tallahassee for a tri-meet with Alabama. Going into the meet, the Seminoles were down one of their top scoring women and were sending Mateo De Angulo to Pan Ams the next day.
Instances like this will be occurring for different teams all year. South Carolina will be sending Gerard Rodriguez to at least one long course meet this year before Spanish Winter Nationals in March where he will swim for a chance to represent Spain in the Olympics this year.
"If I qualify for the Olympics whether this year or for 2016 in Rio, I would be really excited, because it'd mean representing my country in front of the rest of the world. I would have the chance to show the world what Spain is," said Rodriguez.
And while these opportunities are once in a lifetime experiences for many swimmers; taking time out for long course meets, like an Olympic redshirt, can mean changes for the entire team.
Harper has told his swimmers that aren't in a position to qualify for an Olympic team or Trials in the next year to not only support the swimmers that are but to also look at their absence as an opportunity, not a hindrance.
"Now's a great time to step up and say look at me, take me or I can fill in, I can earn my spot. Every meet is an opportunity to stand up in someone's absence, whether they're sick or whether they're swimming in the Pan Ams, now's your chance. You get in lane seven or lane one get after it and see what you can do. "
There are limits on how many athletes can go to conference championships and most teams carry more than this number on their roster which means oftentimes there are athletes that don't get to compete as much, but an Olympic year can open up opportunities for them that they could in turn use to as a chance to swim faster than they ever have.
While an Olympic year can bring about major changes for the individuals preparing, it can also bring about adjustments for entire teams. Teams may have to compete without their best swimmer, but a new success story may come about. Athletes may have to attend meets alone, but they may go the specific time they needed to put themselves on a plane to London.
Almost every swimmer has probably considered the Olympics a goal at one point in their career and whether it still is or not, whole teams can benefit from the excitement of having a teammate in the position to make that dream come true.