US Olympic Trials feels like a Super Bowl of home swimming for NFL Colts

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The U.S. Olympic swimming trials will make a splash on its biggest stage yet: a temporary pool in the massive domed stadium that is home to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.

The high-powered U.S. team will be determined during the nine-day prime-time competition, which kicks off Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium with the spotlight on Katie Ledecky and her quest for a fourth trip to the Summer Games.

As usual, there are plenty of compelling storylines during a competition that many swimmers find more nerve-wracking than the actual Olympics. And the enormous venue only adds to the feeling that this is the Super Bowl of swimming.

“I’m excited. It’ll definitely be different,” said Jack Aikins, a University of Virginia swimmer who will try to make the backstroke team.

Aikins will compete face-up at Lucas Oil Stadium, which should offer the best view locally.

“Nobody other than the backstrokers can really experience how big it is,” he said. “Everyone is staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool, except us. We can really see everything while we’re racing.”

In a sign of how much the trials have grown, this will be the first time the meet has been held in Indianapolis since 2000 – when a then-unknown swimmer named Michael Phelps qualified for his Olympic debut.

That year, the trials were held at the 4,700-seat Indiana University Natatorium. The lineup at Lucas Oil Stadium can hold as many as 32,000 fans, which would be the largest crowd to ever attend an indoor swimming meet.

Golden Ledecky

Ledecky is already one of America’s most celebrated Olympic athletes with a half-dozen individual gold medals – more than any other female swimmer.

She’s not ready yet.

Ledecky has turned things around since the pandemic-postponed Tokyo Games, moving to Florida to train under coach Anthony Nesty, who will lead the U.S. men’s team at the Olympics.

The 27-year-old Ledecky enters the trials as the top seed in four freestyle events ranging from 200 to 1,500 meters. But her competition on the world stage has closed the gap significantly since her stellar performance at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

In Tokyo, Ledecky settled for silver behind Australian Ariarne Titmus in the 400 freestyle, and the American star did not medal at all in the 200 freestyle.

Return children

Caeleb Dressel was the leading male swimmer at the Tokyo Games, winning five gold medals.

A year later, burned out and desperate for a longer break, he quit swimming in the middle of the world championships in Budapest.

When Dressel returned to the pool, it took him a while to get back up to speed. He failed to qualify for the 2023 world championships in Fukuoka, skipped February’s world championships in Doha and arrives in Indianapolis seeded third in his three signature events.

Still, expectations are high based on his recent performances.

“He has improved dramatically from the fall and spring,” said Nesty, who is also Dressel’s personal coach. “He will lean on his experience, on the body of work since September, and just let it go.”

Simone Manuel, the first black woman to claim an individual gold medal in swimming, is also on her way to a comeback.

She narrowly qualified for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, which led to a doctor-ordered break from all physical activity to allow her body to heal. But she is swimming fast again and considers herself one of the top candidates in the 50 and 100 freestyle.

“I’m very happy with where she is right now,” said one of her coaches, Bob Bowman. “I don’t think we could ask for better preparation.”

Doping problems

The Americans will not compete against other countries until they arrive in Paris, but doping revelations involving the Chinese team have become a major talking point ahead of the trials.

In April it was revealed that almost 20 top Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned substance before the Tokyo Olympics, but no sanctions were imposed after the World Anti-Doping Agency accepted the explanation that it was caused by tainted food.

More news broke on Friday on the eve of the US trials, with The New York Times reporting that three of the Chinese swimmers had also tested positive for another performance-enhancing drug several years before the 2021 Olympics, but again escaped identification or sanctions.

“It is extremely frustrating for athletes to always have in the back of their minds that this sport is not fair,” said American breaststroker Lilly King, who has been outspoken in her advocacy for a clean sport.

“We risk everything – our privacy, everything we do, really – to compete on a level playing field. It’s really frustrating not to trust others to do the same.”

To the world or not to the world

Many top swimmers skipped February’s world championships in Doha after scheduling changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the championships into an Olympic year.

It will be interesting to see how this affects those who decided to participate in a major international meeting just months before the US trials.

Kate Douglass, who claimed two gold medals and five medals overall in Doha, called it “an amazing experience” that allowed her to race at the top level. Aikins took advantage of a limited American squad to win four relay medals.

“Having such a large taper meeting, which happened to be such an international experience, was really helpful to me in my trial preparation,” Aikins said.

Fresh faces

The trials always produce a wave of new American stars, and this meeting will be no different.

Keep an eye on swimmers like Jack Alexy, a towering 21-year-old looking to qualify for his first Olympics.

In his senior international debut, he earned one gold, three silvers and bronze at the 2023 world championships in Fukuoka.

Now his sights are set on Olympic gold.

“It was really great to race against the best in the world, especially as we enter an Olympic year,” said Alexy. “It gives me a lot of confidence.”


Summer Olympics AP:

Paul Newberry, The Associated Press