This is a guest post written by Bess Auer about the US Olympic Swim Team Trials. For all of our Trials coverage, click here. And thank you to Ford and the Southern Ford Dealers for supporting our Olympic Trials coverage.

As a non-swimmer who covers the sport (Well, I can swim; I’m a native Floridian, after all. But don’t ask me to try to do a 100 Fly!) I don’t take for granted that our audience may not always understand what we’re talking about when covering swimming. As competitive swimmers and coaches already know, there’s a heck of a lot more to it than just diving in and swimming your heart out!

I was reminded of this fact when we stopped by “102.5 The Game” the local ESPN sports radio show in Nashville hosted by my good friend Willy Daunic. Willy and co-host Floyd Reese, a longtime NFL executive, know tons about the “money sports” like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, but were hard-pressed to name a current Olympic swimmer past Michael Phelps, and they thought he had retired permanently!

This isn’t their fault, of course; it’s just that swimming doesn’t get the coverage that other sports do unless it is an Olympic year.

Click here to take a listen to our ESPN Radio interview here.

So, based on this interview, I thought we’d do a post on 5 things most people don’t know about the Olympic Trials.

 

1. The pool was assembled inside the Century Link Center just for these Trials.

Because of the 14,000+ people who come to watch the event in person, a convention center is a sensible place to hold the Trials. That means putting together a Myrtha pool just for the 8-day event, and then disassembling it.

In fact, not just one, but two pools are put together on-site — one is the competition pool (seen below) and then another warm up pool is built inside the same building but outside the arena below. Carrying on a fairly new tradition, this year’s Olympic Trials pool has been bought by an aquatic group in North Dakota in order to upgrade the swim facilities in the area, so this will soon be disassembled and shipped north for a permanent home. (Lake Highland Prep in Florida got the 1996 Olympic water polo pool.)

Check out the time lapse assembly below:

 

2. The Omega Timing System is one of the most complex in the world.

In every other sport of speed, an official is the one in charge of stopping the clock, but in swimming, only the swimmer himself can stop the time from ticking. Omega has been the official time keeper of the last 26 Olympics, and their Peter Hurzeler is the Chief Timer for swimming and has been for 17 Olympics.

Omega has three separate timing systems at the Trials, all of which have back-up batteries for power to assure an accurate recording:

  1. The main system is in the touchpad, which has two separate sensors to record the time touched. A swimmer has to push in the touchpad the distance of 2 millimeters in order to trigger the time to register.
  2. The next system is two officials who are listening (yes, listening with earphones!) for a swimmer’s touch to register. Apparently it makes a quiet “thump.” If no “thump” is heard, meaning a soft or mis-touch, the officials can go to the third system of overhead cameras.
  3. Overhead cameras, which were developed specifically for this purpose and capture 100 frames every second, allow an official to look frame by frame for exactly the moment a swimmer touches.

A great example of this system in action is Michael Phelps’ 2012 Olympic unbelievable victory over Milorad Cavic in the 100 Fly, where Cavic appeared to have been first to the wall but the time registered with Phelps as the winner. A look with the digital cameras above confirmed the win. (Remember, both swimmers had to close the 2 mm gap on the touchpad for the time to register, and that was the difference.)

 

3. The competition suits are regulated like NASCAR.

Swimmers don’t compete in just any old suit; in fact, today’s swimmers compete in high tech aerodynamic technical suits, including one brand which was developed with the help of NASA scientists.

A few years back these “tech” suits became overly buoyant and reduced so much water drag that they became controversial, the equivalent of  “technological doping” of sorts. So now the suits are closely regulated by FINA, the international governing board of swimming, in order to keep one swimmer from gaining an advantage over another.

So how are tech suits really different from a wetsuit or traditional swimsuit?

  • Compression: increased circulation, assistance with recovery, and alignment. Suit panels target large muscle groups and aid blood flow. The compression is so tight that swimmers often need help “squeezing” into their suits and can take as much as 15 minutes to get fully dressed.
  • Seamless: there is no stitching, these suits often being put together with laser technology. No seams means less water drag!
  • Water Repellant Fabric: tech suits are built with a combination of polyester, nylon, elastane, lycra, spandex, and even carbon fiber but they still have to pass FINA guidelines to be legal.

To make sure that a suit has been approved by FINA, each tech suit has a barcode (located on the swimmer’s back hip) that officials can scan just before a race to be sure a swimmer hasn’t switched out for a suit that looks similar but gives an unfair advantage.

Michael Phelps has developed his own brand of tech suits, which had to go through FINA approval as well. You can see the white barcode on his back left hip:



Michael Phelps after a swim. Photo: Michael Lyn

 

4. There’s an entire town behind the scenes at Trials.

The US Olympic Trials is akin to the Super Bowl for swimming. This meet is often the fastest in the world and a swimmer might very well set a world record in the morning prelims and then not make the team that evening during finals.

To make this meet a reality and to bring you every second of action via live stream, print media, and online coverage, it takes a village, which is buried beneath the stands out of sight.

Just check out this opening done every night before finals:

From the live stream of Chris Lundie’s TakeItLive.TV and NBC operations, to the Omega Timing System and the hundreds of press people, and then to the swimmers, coaches, and officials, the “back stage” area is fascinating to behold.

Pictured Below: Swimmers come down steps from the pool and then walk by the press (to the left) and then make their way to their basket (middle) which contains their personal belongings before heading to the warm down pool (to the right behind the black curtain).
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And the press can be intense as discovered by Ryan Murphy of Bolles, who made his first Olympic Team in two events:

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Pictured Below: Backdoor entrance for media, athletes, and officials (to the left) live streaming and Omega Timing operations (middle) and then the athlete run manned by the military guard for security (to the right).

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Throw in the giant warm down pool, stretching area and lounge for athletes, press conference room, workroom for journalists, workroom for photographers, Media Lounge, and then rooms for USA Swimming operations, and you get an idea of how much you don’t see watching the Trials on television.

And finally, my favorite thing to watch, were the lucky young swimmers who volunteered to carry the competitors’ belongings from the pool (where the swimmers took off warm ups, headphones, etc. by the starting blocks) to the staging area underneath for swimmers to collect after their swim:

 

5. The Trials are victorious, full of fun, and absolutely devastating.

Victorious: Yes, the Olympic Trials is an amazing meet and the world’s elite athletes show the best of themselves. Michael Phelps is headed back to his fifth Olympics while other athletes are experiencing it for the first time.

Melanie Margalis after making her first Olympics - photo/Michael Lyn / FSN
Melanie Margalis shows emotion after making her first Olympic Team. Photo: Michael Lyn

Full of Fun: And the Trials are also fun. Where else might a finalist have the swagger to dress up as Batman as he heads to the starting blocks to take on Michael Phelps?

Batman -Swimmer Zach Harting as he makes his way to starting blocks - photo/Michael Lyn/FSN
Swimmer Zach Harting as he makes his way to starting blocks. Photo: Michael Lyn

Where else can the Dance Cam spot a audience member who strips down to a Speedo and absolutely own it!?

Dance Cam
Swimmer Phil Willet dancing in the crowd as the Dance Cam puts him on the Jumbotron. Photo: Michael Lyn

But the one thing that the average sports fan doesn’t quite realize is how deep the emotions run at the US Olympic Trials.

Absolutely Devastating: The chances of a swimmer going to the US Olympic Trials are less than one-half of one percent. The chance of actually making the team is close to zero (0.013%).

  • 350,000 competitive swimmers in the USA
  • 1,885 swimmers qualified to try out for this year’s US Olympic Team.
  • 48 states had qualifiers, none from Alaska or Wyoming (Florida had over 140!)
  • 2 fastest finishers from each of the 13 events earn a spot on the Olympic Team
  • 47 swimmers total will represent the USA at the Rio Olympics  (And 6 are from Florida!)

Remember, only two people per event go to the Olympics. Everybody else came *this* close.

Take former Olympians Natalie Coughlin, Cullen Jones, Matt Grevers, Tyler Clary, or Caitlin Leverenz, who despite being some of the fastest in the world, they will be watching the Rio Olympics like the rest of us… on TV!

Or Madison Kennedy, who was an odds-on favorite sprinter and was on her third trip to the Olympic Trials. She finaled in 2012 and then again missed making the team this year in the 50 Free by only fifteen hundredths of a second. Just 72 hours earlier, she had missed making the team in the 100 Free by getting to the wall third!

I realize all sports have winners and losers, and each athlete has his or her own crucible to bare, but there is something exceedingly sinister in a sport such as swimming, where the Olympics only come around every 4 years. I can think of no other sporting situation which guts an athlete in quite the same way.

Four years ago just before the 2012 Trials, University of Texas Coach Eddie Reese had told me the Trials were not a happy event because so many dreams were ruined in the process. Now having been through two of them, I am beginning to understand.

But perhaps nobody has eloquently penned what not making an Olympic Team means quite like retired swimmer Annie Grevers, upon her husband Matt missing this year’s Team. Matt Grevers is a three-time Olympian who was expected to “breeze” through this year’s Trials, not find himself locked out. Be sure to read “Losing Like an Olympic Champion” for better insight.

So, for those 47 swimmers who did earn a spot on this year’s US Olympic Team, congratulations! But for the other 1,838 swimmers who didn’t, those four years can seem awfully long.

And this is why all swimmers have my ultimate respect!