‘Unbelievable’ Wave I Experiment Has USA Swimming Pondering Long-Term Change

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Tim Hinchey; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

For more than a year, Tim Hinchey and his leadership team at USA Swimming knew their plan for Olympic Trials would require two aims.

Yes, the meet’s primary purpose is to select the American delegation to the Tokyo Olympics. But for many USA Swimming members, competing in Olympic Trials is a pinnacle of a career, a defining line-item on a swimming CV.

The leadership team at USA Swimming sought to balance those objectives in the face of COVID-19-related challenges that limited the number of swimmers that could be at Omaha at one time for Trials. And the bifurcation of the meet into last week’s Wave I and the Wave II meet for Olympic selection starting Sunday provides a new way of looking at Trials in non-pandemic times.

“What’s important at USA Swimming is every kid gets a chance and has the opportunity to make Olympic Trials when they’re that fast,” Hinchey said a press conference in Omaha Friday. “So to keep that promise was really a key objective for us.”

Hinchey, who became USA Swimming’s President and CEO in July 2017, is in the midst of his first Olympic cycle at the helm. It’s the most unique one in more than a generation, given the postponement from 2020 and the attendant challenges of restarting sports after months of shutdowns. That has had ramifications not just for elite swimmers but for clubs, schools and colleges across the countries, issues that are both logistical and financial.

For the U.S. Team Trials, it was unclear into the spring if they could happen in any format. Only after the organization decided to split it into Wave I and Wave II did conditions nationally, with a rapid rollout of vaccines, improve so that arenas at sporting events are increasingly full and sports is back closer to normal. Hinchey said Friday that his worst nightmare for Trials in the COVID-19 era is for swimmers with a chance to get to the Olympics to be denied a chance to compete to get there. Writ large, that was the central conundrum of Trials.

Caeleb Dressel was one of those initially hesitant about the plan. Like many swimmers, he draws on inspiration as a teenager just happy to be in Omaha – in his case, in 2012 – with no realistic shot of qualifying for the Olympics. But that experience, of swimming in a lane next to star or competing against a college veteran, is fuel for the fire four years down the road.

Dressel was concerned that young swimmers would miss out on that during Wave I. But after he and Ryan Lochte arrived in Omaha and saw the enthusiasm from Brendan Hansen, USA Swimming’s Director of Team Services and a veteran of four Olympic Trials in the pool, Dressel reconsidered that stance.

“I had a problem with the whole wave situation because I related to being that young kid in 2012 where I got to swim in the same pool as Ryan, I got to swim in the same warmup lane as Michael Phelps and felt like that was taken away from Wave I,” Dressel said. “Or so I thought, until talking to Brendan and seeing the photos of the kids having their moment in the same pool at the same time but instead of saying my stupid name on the scoreboard, they got to see their name up there.

“So it completely flipped on me of a worry that I thought was something that was being taken away from them was actually given to them where it wasn’t overshadowed by the big names here at Wave II. So I was really happy for the kids where you could see the genuine excitement where it looked the same emotion that some of the big names in Wave II that you’re going to see. So nothing was taken away from them, I’m really glad it worked out like that and it was genuine excitement where they were in the same pool, they were at the same venue, while we might not have been there at the same time, to them it was real and it makes me really happy to see that. And they can take the moving forward to four years from now where there will be someone from Wave I who will be on the team.”

Hinchey related a similar story, arriving on night one of Wave I and seeing Camille Spink of Nation’s Capital Aquatic Club win the women’s 100 freestyle. In the old format, Spink would’ve left Omaha having improved her time, a significant but ultimately private triumph. Instead, she got an evening swim with the finals treatment on TV and in the arena.

That’s something that Hinchey said resonated deeply.

“Seeing that emotion in the 100 free was tremendous,” Hinchey said of Spink. “And knowing that if she had just come to traditional trials, it would’ve been great and she would’ve raced and had a great time. But the chance for her to come back and get a second swim, go under the lights and then get faster again, that’s just unbelievable.

“Yeah, I think the small talk in the back room is like, maybe we keep this going, maybe there’s a way to do this successfully for everybody because again, watching these kids enjoy this spotlight that they earned is tremendous and very exciting.”

11 comments

  1. avatar
    Alexis Murray

    The silver lining of the Covid-necessitated Wave I meet (unsung/lesser-sung swimmers having an opportunity to shine in finals) was indeed awesome and I appreciate Dressel’s positive spin. However I would bet that the majority of Trials qualifiers (even some of those who ended up making Wave I finals!) would trade it all to swim in ONE Trials meet, as per usual. Just because there were good stories that came out of the Wave I meet does NOT mean that this concept should be implemented in non-Covid years. I really feel for everyone in Wave I. I am glad that they had an opportunity to swim the Wave I meet (rather than missing out completely if the US Trials had been drastically limited) but the pandemic robbed many very good swimmers of what might have been a highlight of their swim careers. Here’s hoping we’re back to “normal” in 2024!!

  2. avatar
    Past swimmer

    Sounds like everybody now will be getting participation trophies. Can we stop with mediocracy and just get back to making America Great?!

    • avatar
      Tao Jonz

      ….said someone who clearly never swam in Olympic Trials

      • avatar
        Anonymous

        Quite obviously you know nothing about me, my Olympic trials or world rankings.

  3. avatar
    Swim mom

    Thank you Alexis Murray! We wholeheartedly agree & our daughter who had a trials cut but chose not to swim it (1) so she could enjoy the spring of her senior year in HS more by not having to continue the dog days training (2) bc, as she put it, “why go if you’re not on deck w the big dogs?” (That’s alot of dog references in one sentence! But u get the point) I hope that Olympic trials committee & USA swimming are not so blinded by their egos, COVID-like concerns where the 1% drive the decision train & as Past Swimmer said, hand out participation trophies, to see that no matter how u spin it, a big part of working ur a#% off to get to trials IS the experience of rubbing shoulders w the big dogs. If u take that away, MANY more swimmers than Caleb Dressel or Brendan Hansen realize will give up the goal of Trials. And swimming overall in the USA will eventually suffer as a result.

  4. avatar
    Margaret McM

    I would hope to go back to a 1 meet format. Those qualifiers who got there and have little chance of making the Olympic team deserve to be in the pool with the fastest swimmers in the world. They earned it. Don’t take that away from them.

  5. avatar
    Swimmer

    Go back to 1 meet- Dressel is probably asked by USA swimming to put a positive spin on it. But if USA swimming chooses this route, say goodbye to USA swimming dominance in the future. So much of 2024 and 2028 Olympic success is being built by those at trials NOW with the top swimmers. They get to learn by observing the best

  6. avatar
    Roric

    It was an unbelievable experience for those at the wave 1 meet. Not surprising that the comments above are coming from people/athletes not involved. Having the chance to swim finals, race for the win, and get interviewed was an experience they will never forget. Much better then a one prelims swim and done experience for sure. And the top two earned their way into wave 2. It will be interesting to see where those that took advantage of this rare chance will be in three years. My guess is they will be well ahead of those that weren’t here or that had a prelim swim only in wave 1 only. Some form of this meet should continue. I think personally it should be more about younger athletes and not as many from the college ranks. Well done USA Swimming. Keep being creative and thinking outside of the box.

  7. avatar
    Cary Seidman

    Go back to one meet. Elizabeth Beisel did her best to hype the wave 1 meet on TV, no doubt per instructions from USA Swimming and NBC, but there was NO discernable enthusiasm. In fact, with the exception of the officials, coaches, and a handful of parents clapping, no pizzazz at all. Of course, in this COVID-19 year. better a Wave 1 meet than no meet…. but this should NOT be the new normal. Caleb Dressel, Katie Ledecky and the other megastars can say excuse me on deck a few times on a crowded deck during prelims, but ALL these very accomplished swimmers deserve a chance to swim in the spotlight, having achieved a Trials Cut, a lifetime goal for many, if not most, of them. Keeping this exclusionary and elitist format looks a lot like USA Swimming is “eating its young”… very bad for the long term future of the sport. Why should a talented young swimmer work his/her tail off for the “privilege” of competing an a “big” meet which has less going for it than their local age group championship.

  8. avatar
    Swim567

    I had a teammate win a event at wave I. It was huge for our program and so exciting to watch. However, bc of previous commitments she can’t be at wave II bc she hadn’t planned on qualifying. I think it would have been just as amazing if she had made semis if the year was normal. Although she got her 15 min of fame everyone moved on to the next meet. For me, swimming with your idols is the most inspiring thing there is. I’d rather get last in a normal year and swim with them then win an event at wave I. While it was a really great solution for this year, I hope it doesn’t stick around unless they lower the cuts and make a junior olympic trials.

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