Heartbreak By Hundreds

Matt Grevers places 3rd in the prelims of the 100 freestyle.
Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

At U.S. Trials, the men’s 100 fly and 100 back are all set to feature spirit-crushing drama…

Commentary by Casey Barrett

The brutal theme of Olympic Trials is heartbreak. Sure, it’s the most exciting swim meet on the planet, and yes, there’s nothing quite like witnessing the fulfillment of dreams when the chosen few touch first or second. But the fact remains that 98% of the swimmers at U.S. Trials will go home un-Olympian.

Most know that they don’t have a realistic shot going in; they’re just happy to be in Omaha. Many have convinced themselves they’re Rio-bound. Even if your prospects are slim, you’re believing in miracles right about now. And so you should. Yet, there’s a third subset of swimmers who will come and go in Omaha with a particularly heavy burden. They are the ones expected to make it, and don’t.

These are the doomed ones. The dead men and women walking that are hard to look at after a near miss. No one wants to be that guy or that girl. If you lacked empathy before, you’ll feel that virtue in a hurry when you imagine what it must be like to be in their shattered shoes.

It happens at every Trials, and for all the car wreck gawking it produces, it’s one of the priceless things that makes trials, Trials. Sometimes you don’t see it coming. The events that were foregone conclusions are suddenly up-ended and some 14-year-old upstart is standing giggling under the bright lights, while some veteran weeps in the warm-down pool.

But with other events, you can see the coming carnage a mile away. Which brings us to the men’s 100 fly and 100 back. It’s a long established fact that American swimming is deeper than any other country’s. By, like, a lot. It’s cruelly deep. To the point where there have been times when a U.S. swimmer missed the Team at Trials, and would have likely been on an Olympic podium a few weeks later. (Hayley McGregory, my heart will always break for you…)

Take a look at the contenders in the men’s 100 fly: Michael Phelps / Jack Conger / Tom Shields / Tim Phillips… Not to mention Seth Stubblefield, Ryan Lochte, and plenty of emerging others.

Now, you’d have to be a fool or a punch-drunk hater to bet against Phelps in the 100 fly. He of the miracle finish, he of the three-straight Olympic golds in that event, all by narrow margins… Yeah, he’s gonna be one of the two in this event.

The other one? Well, Conger just went 51.72 last weekend in Austin, a fingernail behind Phelps, and his star is on the rise, seemingly at the perfect time. But does that mean Tom Shields doesn’t make the Team? Hard to imagine, after years as a stalwart on the National Team. He could just as easily be standing with his hand over his heart on the podium in Rio as staring at a scoreboard in disbelief in Omaha. So it goes…

And so it will go in the men’s 100 back, as well. Last weekend, David Plummer lit it up at the Grand Prix in Indy. His 52.40 catapulted him to the front of the pack in the always stacked men’s 100 back. But does he have enough to beat the Chosen (Next) One, Ryan Murphy? Will the journeyman Plummer and the new king Murphy both bring down defending Olympic champion, Matt Grevers? Like Shields, it seems unthinkable that Grevers, such a fixture of the National Team, wouldn’t be there in Rio. Yet, he’s sure looking like another superstar on the hot seat.

There are others, to be sure. Loads of events at these coming U.S. Trials are rich in drama and inevitable upsets. Those are just a taste. Trials hurt. That’s what makes them so much fun, and also so very hard to watch at times.

Three more weeks till all that beautiful heartbreak…

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

Notify of

Welcome to our community. We invite you to join our discussion. Our community guidelines are simple: be respectful and constructive, keep on topic, and support your fellow commenters. Commenting signifies that you agree to our Terms of Use

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x