OMAHA, Neb — Caeleb Dressel wants to command the Olympics the way he’s done at worlds. Katie Ledecky is seeking to extend her dominance. Ryan Lochte is going after his fifth — and last — Olympic berth. A couple of teenage girls have designs on shaking up the veterans. Simone Manuel and Lilly King are back, too.
After a year-long delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Olympic swimming trials get underway looking a bit different. Masks are as much part of the equipment as suits, caps and goggles, along with frequent testing for COVID-19.
The eight-day meet begins Sunday in a temporary pool inside CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha, the fourth time the U.S. team has been selected in Nebraska. Michael Phelps began his historic run to eight Olympic gold medals by making the team at the first trials held in Omaha in 2008.
He retired after Rio in 2016, leaving Dressel to pick up Phelps’ mantle as the world’s dominant male swimmer. He had a Phelps-like performance at the 2019 world championships, winning a record eight medals, including six gold. At 2017 worlds, he won seven golds.
“I don’t think that falls on my shoulders alone,” Dressel said. “Michael was one guy within USA Swimming, but he wasn’t USA Swimming. That’s what makes USA Swimming so strong is the team and as a collective whole.”
In the Phelps’ era, swimmers were essentially competing for one spot because he earned the other. Now, things have opened up considerably on the men’s side.
The pandemic forced several changes at trials, including reducing arena capacity to half of its usual 17,560. Cardboard cutouts mix with fans in the seats. The trials were split into two different meets, with the slowest swimmers competing a week earlier to avoid overcrowding. Those who finished first or second advanced to this week’s competition, which NBC will air every night in primetime.
“The kids are dying to race,” said Ray Looze, who coaches Olympic champion breaststroker King. “I think there’s going to be some world records that go down because there’s been some people that have had to go through a great deal, and they really, really want it bad.”
Defending Olympic backstroke champion Ryan Murphy can’t wait to swim in front of a live, loud crowd after fans were banned from meets during the pandemic.
“It really does add a level of adrenaline behind the blocks,” he said, “and it makes us feel like we’re doing something really cool when people are cheering, when they’re invested.”
The U.S. trials are often considered more competitive than the Olympics. Those who finish third — and miss the team — would often be in the hunt for a medal at the games. Even the biggest names are worried about getting their hand on the wall because only the top two finishers earn Olympic berths. Those finishing in the top six of the 100 and 200 freestyles can also qualify.
“There’s a lot of hype on and you can get discouraged,” Lochte said. “So just stay calm and just enjoy it. Enjoy it and embrace everything that’s going on around you because this is probably one of the funnest swim meets in the world.”
Some story lines to follow at these trials:
— Dressel was a minor player in Rio, winning gold on a relay with Phelps and making the 100 free final. Now, he’s poised to step into the spotlight in Tokyo, having dominated at the last two world championships. He’s entered in six events at trials, starting with the 200-meter freestyle on Monday.
— Ledecky is eager to embellish her haul of six Olympic medals, including five gold. She’s entered in four events — the 200, 400, 800 and 1,500 freestyles. The so-called mile is a new event for women in Tokyo, and Ledecky already swam the world’s fastest time in it in April. She’s the top seed in each of her events except the 100 free, in which she’s 10th. “I feel very confident in the work that I've put in," she said. "I have big goals for myself.”
— Manuel made history in Rio as the first Black woman to win an individual swimming gold medal, tying Canada’s Penny Oleksiak in the 100 free. She took silver in the 50 free. Manuel has continued to be one of the world’s best sprinters over the last five years. Out of the water, she’s used her fame to discuss race and push for more diversity in her sport. “I'm really excited to be here, knowing the challenges that I faced this year and how far I've come,” she said.
— King is the favorite to defend her Olympic title in the 100 breaststroke, in which she owns the world record. She’s seeded second in the 200 breast, where she didn’t make the final in Rio. King is the outspoken conscience of the U.S. team, never shy in calling out drug cheats for their misdeeds and promoting social justice.
— Lochte is trying to equal Phelps’ feat of making five Olympic teams. He’s 36, married with two kids and has competed sporadically since getting arrested five years in Rio after lying about being robbed at a gas station. He owns 12 Olympic medals. He’s entered in six events at trials, but is unlikely to compete in all of them. His best chance is the 200 individual medley, where he owns the world record set in 2011 and is seeded fifth.
— Teenagers Claire Curzan and Torri Huske are looking to make a splash. Curzan, a 16-year-old from North Carolina, is top-seeded in the 100 butterfly and No. 2 in the 50 free. Huske is an 18-year-old from Virginia headed to Stanford in the fall. She's seeded second in the 100 fly, third in the 50 free, fifth in the 100 free, and sixth in the 200 IM.
— Lochte isn't the only veteran seeking a return Olympic trip. Also on the men's side is 36-year-old Matt Grevers, 32-year-old Nathan Adrian (who overcame testicular cancer), and 29-year-olds Tom Shields and Cody Miller. At 40, Tony Ervin has got them all beat. He was the 50 free champion at the 2000 Sydney Games and later auctioned off his medal to help survivors of the 2004 tsunami. Ervin, who also won the 50 free at Rio, harbors no illusions about making the team, viewing the trials as a chance to pass the torch to the next generation. On the women's side, 29-year-old Melanie Margalis is a contender in multiple events to make her second Olympics.