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Location adds intrigue to swimming trials | The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS — The U.S. Olympic swimming trials will make a splash on their biggest stage yet: a temporary pool inside 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 will definitely be different,” said Jack Aikins, a University of Virginia swimmer who will try to make the team in the backstroke.

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 literally see everything while we’re racing.”

Showing 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.

COMEBACK 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.

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 CARE

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.

“It’s hard to go into Paris knowing that we’re going to be racing against some of these athletes,” Ledecky said in a recent interview with CBS. “And I think our confidence in some systems is at an all-time low.”

Kate Douglass, who won a total of two golds and five medals at this year’s world championships, said she is trying to put the doping case out of her mind.

“It’s unfortunate that we don’t know for sure whether these claims are true or what lies behind them,” Douglass said. “But I only focus on myself.”

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 coming into an Olympic year,” said Alexy. “It gives me a lot of confidence.”

photo Simone Manuel gives a thumbs up after competing in the Pro Swim Series event on Thursday, January 11, 2024 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Manuel was the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. Now she is returning from a grueling bout of overtraining that left her body failing ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Games. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
photo Simone Manuel prepares to compete in the Pro Swim Series event on Thursday, January 11, 2024 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Manuel was the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. Now she is returning from a grueling bout of overtraining that left her body failing ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Games. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)