Take a trip. Go around to every swimming pool, track, gymnastics practice, fencing academy, dojo, wrestling tournament and (sighs) dive meet in your town and ask the kids, the ones who haven’t hit their teenage years and figured out their own athletic limitations, what they want to do in their sport. Where do they want to be? What’s the ultimate goal?
"The Olympics," is all you’ll hear. It won’t be "gold medal at the Olympics" – maybe one or two kids will say that. To the rest, making the Olympics is basically the same thing.
And because simply being on the team is the goal for so many – the thing they worked towards from grade school on – that makes getting to the Olympics almost bigger than competing in the Olympics. It’s why, while the Summer Games are the greatest sporting event on the planet, the United States Trials in swimming and track make for the best and most dramatic viewing. Only a very few will have their Olympic dreams made in Rio. Most will reach theirs right here in the States.
It sounds backward, but there’s more inherent drama at the trials than at the Olympics, which isn’t to say there’s not any drama at the Summer Games. There’s a reason 35 million Americans, nightly, will watch a human interest story masquerading as a two-week sporting event this August. And though we celebrate gold, silver and bronze, we’ve been conditioned to realize the Olympics are about far more than some heavy metal discs. There will be about 11,000 athletes in Rio and around 300 golds to go around. The rest are competing for something else entirely.
We love the Olympics for Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Gabby Douglas. But the Olympics are really about the fencer who overcame tragedy to make the team on the final round. They’re about the mother of six, whose family encouraged her as she put things on hold to realize her Olympic dream in archery. They’re about Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of South Sudan, who immigrated to the United States and made the Olympics in distance running, then was selected by his teammates to serve as the flagbearer when the team walked into the Beijing Games.
I spoke to Lomong before London, before he’d even qualified, actually. This would be his second Olympic trials and, if he was good enough, his second Olympic Games. He didn’t even hesitate when I asked him about the difference.
Lomong qualified, then finished 10th in the 5000 meters at the Games. To the special athlete with high hopes – the 1%, if you will – that’d be a colossal failure. To the rest, it’s a cherry on top.
What makes the U.S. trials, especially in swimming and track, so much better than the rest? First, many countries hand-pick their teams. If you’ve been great for three years, chances are you’re going to be heading to Rio. Are you a Russian swimmer who won gold at the 2015 world championships? Are you part of a country so small that you’re the only one to make the Olympic cut time? You’re going to Rio, no problem.
Not in the States. The trials are clean. No griminess associated. In track, the top-three in each event make it. In swimming, it’s the top-two. That’s it. No do overs. No lifelines. It’s the ultimate in drama – a case of the stopwatch never lying, not caring if you’re Michael Phelps or Carl Lewis or Dave from those Dan and Dave commercials. U.S. trials are the ultimate meritocracy.
And swimming tops track, not because it means any more to make it in one sport or the other, but for the simple fact that 2 < 3. Cutting American swimmers off at two per race is a practice that leaves out world-class athletes who could medal in that event at the Games. Instead, they’re home watching on TV like the rest of us.
Oh, it’s true in plenty of sports that some people who don’t make the team could have won an Olympic medal had they qualified, but in swimming there’s definitive proof of this.
A majority of the third-place finishers at trials back in 2012 would have qualified for the eight-swimmer finals in London. Not just that, a handful would have been serious medal contenders. In the men’s 100 back, for instance, the time that finished third at trials would have missed out on a bronze in London by .01 seconds.
Katie Ledecky, the swim sensation who will, along with Simone Biles, become the breakout star from these Olympics, won gold in the London 800 free but was actually better in the 400. However, a poor trials race from the 15-year-old cost her an Olympic spot in that event by 0.82 seconds (in a four-minute race). From being a gold-medal favorite to not even getting to compete in the event. That’s the agony of Olympic swim trials.
And the trial-to-Olympic examples aren’t apples to apples. A vast majority of swimmers drop time at the Games (by as many as a couple of seconds in the 200-meter distances and up), so that backstroker whose trials time would have been fourth-best in London easily could have dropped time to win silver, or even gold.
It’s heartbreaking: When you’re the third-fastest swimmer in the United States, it tends to mean you’re one of the 10 best swimmers in the world. You put in four years of work. Up at 4:30 a.m., on deck doing dryland by 5:15, in the pool at 6, to school at 7:30, back in the pool at 6 p.m. and then, if there’s time, homework around 10. Everyone at the swimming trials this week – more than 1,000 men and women (and boys and girls) – has gone through the same exact thing. Only about 35 will be rewarded with the ultimate prize of a berth in Rio. It’s the pain and anguish of coming in third, awkwardly combined with the rapturous joy of touching second that makes the swim trials such great television. Former gold medalist, and current NBC swim analyst, Rowdy Gaines said it best on Sunday’s telecast.
Athletes have to be realistic. Most aren’t winning gold in Rio. Most aren’t contending. Less than 8% will even medal. But if you’re an American who isn’t Michael Phelps or Alyson Felix or Ledecky or Biles or Kerri Walsh Jennings, that doesn’t matter. Looking up at that scoreboard and seeing that your time has qualified you for the Olympics is the dream. That airplane touching down in Rio is your gold-medal ceremony. It’s the culmination of years of hard work.
You put in those hours, in whatever discipline, not because you’ll be on top of a medal stand, but because you want to walk into that stadium during the Opening Ceremony waving the American flag, meet people from around the globe and represent your country in a sport that you’ve worked at for as long as you can remember. And then, at the end, you’ll have a hell of a story to tell for the rest of your life.
The pomp, circumstance and pageantry is, of course, greatest at the Olympics. But you gotta get there first.