How the 2012 Olympic Trials Served as a Launching Pad for Future United States Stars


How the 2012 Olympic Trials Served as a Launching Pad for Future United States Stars

Recalling the first time an athlete qualified for the Olympic Games is easy. The fist pump or look to family in the stands is memorable. So, too, is the moment when an individual is announced to the crowd as an Olympian, which is part of USA Swimming’s process at the Olympic Trials.

But what about those Olympic Trials experiences that suggested future greatness…or offered hope? For most, those initial days unfolded in relative anonymity, although they were valuable learning opportunities for the future.

If you take a look at some of the young swimmers who competed at the 2012 Trials in Omaha, you’ll recognize the names of many future American stars. Here is a glance at the Trials debut of several key performers who are seeking invitations to this summer’s Olympic Games in Paris. Certainly, the following athletes enjoyed significant growth in the sport, with their experience of 12 years ago serving as a jumping-off point.


As a 15-year-old at the 2012 Trials, Katie Ledecky didn’t merely gain experience for her march to an eventual Hall of Fame nod. Instead, she shot to stardom by winning the 800 meter freestyle and followed up that performance by securing gold in the distance event at the London Aquatic Centre.

Ledecky’s Trials debut in Omaha also included a third-place finish in the 400 freestyle and set the stage for her emergence as, perhaps, the greatest female swimmer in history. Heading into this summer, her career features 10 Olympic medals—including seven gold—and 26 medals from the World Championships.


Ryan Murphy

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

By the time the 2012 Trials concluded, there was little doubt that Ryan Murphy was the future of the backstroke for the United States. Although he was only 16 years old, Murphy advanced to the finals of the 100 backstroke and 200 backstroke, demonstrating that he had the talent to compete with the elite performers in his stroke.

In addition to finishing fourth in the 200 backstroke, Murphy notched a sixth-place finish in the 100 backstroke. The efforts were precursors to Olympic titles in both backstroke events at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and three more medals at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“Personally, I started to believe in myself at the 2012 Olympic Trials,” Murphy said. “That was kind of a big breakthrough for me. I dropped a lot of time, and it was the first time I was able to get into the ‘Big Boy’ heat and race some of those older guys. So, at that point, I was like, ‘All right, I think I’ve got a shot at this next time around. I kind of put my head down and worked toward that goal.”


These days, Caeleb Dressel is known as an Olympic champion and one of the greatest sprinters the sport has seen. But before Dressel started claiming international hardware, his first Trials visit was a learning experience. After all, in 2012, Dressel never finished higher than 100th in any of his five events.

In his first Olympic Trials, Dressel complemented a 100th-place showing in the 200 individual medley with a pair of 121st-place finishes (200 freestyle/100 butterfly). He was also 145th in the 50 freestyle and 152nd in the 100 freestyle. Nonetheless, Dressel got to share the pool deck with established veterans, and he used the meet as a step for the future.

Four years later, Dressel qualified for the 2016 Olympic Games via a runner-up finish in the 100 freestyle, with that effort landing Dressel a spot on the United States’ gold-medal-winning 400 freestyle relay. More, he left the Tokyo Olympics with five medals, including solo crowns in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly.


Simone Manuel

Courtesy: Peter Bick

The 2012 Trials offered Simone Manuel the chance to test her skills on the biggest stage of her career, and with a 17th-place finish in the 100 freestyle, she narrowly missed qualifying for the semifinals of the 100 freestyle. Her trip to Omaha also included a 20th-place outing in the 50 freestyle and a 50th-place effort in the 200 freestyle.

During the next quadrennium, Manuel was a go-to sprinter for Team USA, and she shared the gold medal in the 100 freestyle with Canadian Penny Oleksiak at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Entering this summer, Manuel owns five Olympic medals and 16 medals from action at the World Championships.


As two-time Olympians, Abbey Weitzeil (four) and Olivia Smoliga (two) have combined for six medals at the Games. Their journeys toward that success began at the 2012 Trials. Weitzeil has developed from an athlete who was 51st in the 100 freestyle and 79th in the 50 freestyle, while Smoliga has grown from fourth in the 100 backstroke, 23rd in the 50 freestyle and 48th in the 100 freestyle.


Chase Kalisz is best known for his exploits in the individual medley, most notably his victory in the 400 IM at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and silver medal in the event at the 2016 Rio Games. But the six-time World Champs medalist was also present at the 2012 U.S. Trials, where he was 40th in the 200 butterfly.


Nine years before he earned the silver medal in the 400 individual medley at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Jay Litherland gathered experience at the 2012 U.S. Trials. There, Litherland was 36th in the 200 backstroke, 43rd in the 400 IM and 73rd in the 400 freestyle.


This summer, Nic Fink figures to chase his first Olympic medal, with his best opportunities arriving in the 100 breaststroke and the 400 medley relay. But Fink is already a 13-time medalist at the World Championships, and his path toward international acclaim began at the 2012 Trials. In Omaha, Fink was 11th in the 100 breaststroke, 17th in the 200 breaststroke and 26th in the 200 individual medley.


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1 month ago

Katie Ledecky is the greatest female swimmer in history.

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