Morning Splash by David Rieder.
Last weekend, at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, Calif., 26-year-old Ross Miner finished second in the men’s event. But the next day, Miner was not among the announced trio of men that would represent the United States at the Olympics. He wasn’t even the first alternate.
National champion Nathan Chen was named to the team, and he was joined by third-place finisher Vincent Zhou and fourth-place finisher Adam Rippon. Jason Brown, an Olympian from 2014, was named first alternate, with Miner fifth in line.
To recap: At the primary qualifying event for the Olympic Games, the second-place finisher was deemed the fifth-best option. How does that make sense?
Of course, that’s not how it works swimming—or in diving, track and field or plenty of other Olympic sports. In swimming, the top two finishers at Olympic Trials make the team. If race day comes around and you end up third place or worse, you’re out of luck.
But in figure skating, it’s basically the norm, since Olympians are selected by a committee. Criteria for selection are based on past results at events over the past year, not just Nationals, and the final decisions are voted on.
Unsurprisingly, it’s commonplace for a higher finisher from Nationals to be dropped from the team to accommodate a lower finisher who has better credentials.
The best-remembered of these controversies came in 2014, when Ashley Wagner finished fourth at Nationals but got the spot on the Olympic team over third-place finisher Mirai Nigasu. Wagner found herself right back in the thick of the selection debate this year, when she finished fourth at Nationals and then openly stated that she still deserved an Olympic bid—which she ultimately did not get.
The same thing happened in 1992, when Mark Mitchell was dropped from the Olympic team after a third-place finish at Nationals. Now, Mitchell coaches a skater named… Ross Miner.
This year, the committee gave the nod to Rippon over Miner because of credentials—specifically, Rippon is ranked fifth in the current International Skating Union rankings and has plenty of recent international experience, while Rippon is ranked 26th and before last week had not finished in the top three at Nationals since 2013.
Compare that model with the one used in swimming, where upsets at Olympic Trials happen with regularity. Take the very first event of the 2016 Olympic Trials, the men’s 400 IM. Chase Kalisz and Ryan Lochte were favored to finish in the top two spots and earn spots to swim the event in Rio, but Jay Litherland put together the swim of his life to come from behind and upset Lochte.
There was no committee meeting afterwards to discuss if Litherland was truly deserving of that spot. He touched the wall second, and therefore he was deserving of joining Kalisz, his teammate at the University of Georgia, in the event in Rio.
Over the next few days, the cut-throat nature of Trials would prevent 2012 Olympic champions Matt Grevers and Tyler Clary from having opportunities to defend their titles. Micah Lawrence was the 2015 World Championship silver medalist in the women’s 200 breast, but she did not make the 201y Olympic team after finishing fourth in the event at Trials. There were no second chances.
Sure, there’s a danger in such a system—a great swimmer who might be the best chance for an American medal at the Olympics could get left behind. But look at the flip side of that: If you can survive the high-pressure stakes of Olympic Trials, the Olympics should be no more of a challenge.
In his first Olympic swim in Rio, Kalisz qualified first for the 400 IM final and afterwards stated that he hadn’t been nervous—Trials had actually been more pressure for him than the Olympics themselves. The unforgiving nature of Olympic Trials had actually prepared the swimmers for what they would see in Brazil.
The justification for the selection-by-committee approach is the fear that an inexperienced athlete may struggle to replicate their Trials form at the Olympics. Okay, fair enough, but think about the past swimming rookies who have gone on to light it up at the Olympics.
In 2016, a 19-year-old breaststroker with almost no international experience went on to win gold in the women’s 100 breast in Rio. That was Lilly King. Four years earlier, a 15-year-old distance swimmer who few had heard of a few months earlier stunned the field to win the 800 free at U.S. Olympic Trials. She, too, would go on to win Olympic gold. Yes, that would be Katie Ledecky.
Some of the great Olympic stories are written by athletes who break through at the selection meet, and while the committee model doesn’t rule out breakthrough performers, it gives veterans a leg up. In swimming, nothing matters but the race and who touches first and second. Black and white.
Perhaps to those who follow figure skating as closely as we do swimming, their system makes the most sense, but committee decisions can and often do invite controversy. With swimming’s Olympic Trials, there is none of that.
When a swimmer sees a “1” or “2” next to their name after a Trials final, he or she knows that they are going to the Olympics. The emotions that follow are real and powerful. Why have a committee around to mess that up?
All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.