NBC swimming analyst Rowdy Gaines discusses the major storylines to watch going into the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. Even though there will be nearly 2,000 swimmers competing, only about 50 will punch their tickets to Rio.
And even though some swimmers – like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte – have entered in several events, Gaines explains that the psych sheets don’t always reveal the true picture. Between last-minute scratches and entering more events than a swimmer intends to race, Trials could end up going differently than described on paper.
“I think it’s not so much the media as it is with other people and the way they strategize, I guess,” Gaines says. “I don’t get it. Unless they’re really truly indecisive all the way up to the racing.”
Gaines looks ahead to this week’s Trials (June 26-July 3 in Omaha, Nebraska) where he anticipates many world and American records to go down. It’s swimmers’ only opportunity to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the top two in each event earn spots on the squad and the top six in the 100m and 200m freestyles fill out the U.S.’ relay teams.
Michael Phelps has created a bit of a mystery about whether or not he’ll swim the 100m and 200m freestyles at Trials (he is entered in those events). But the man poised to make history as the first U.S. man to make five Olympic teams has a secret weapon: His longtime coach, Bob Bowman, is the 2016 U.S. Men’s Olympic Swim Team head coach.
“The head coach is the personal coach; although that shouldn’t weigh in the decision, but it obviously does. We’ve seen what Michael can do to help relays, even when he’s not at his best. You only have to point to four years ago when he had a lackluster 400m individual medley, and then the next day he had the second fastest split out of anybody in the 4x100m freestyle relay – so the guy can swim relays. I wouldn’t leave him off. He should be able to go first, second, third or fourth blindfolded and still be okay.”
Defending 400m IM gold medalist Ryan Lochte could become the third U.S. male to make four Olympic teams, joining Phelps and Jason Lezak. He’s a threat in several of his best events, including both the 200m and 400m IM, the 200m backstroke and even the 200m freestyle, should he choose to swim it.
Missy Franklin returns to the Olympic stage as only the second woman (alongside Amy Van Dyken in 1996) to win four gold medals in a single Games – but not without the target on her back.
“[Franklin was] always the chaser, not the chasee. It’s so much more horrendous being the chasee. It’s so much more fun being the chaser. It’s gonna be a different kind of pressure and she’s gone through some injury problems. I will say this though: I think we’ve almost come full circle on her where a lot of people are thinking she’s the underdog. She’s had injuries, she’s changed coaches and she’s had some illnesses and stuff like that. So I think the pressure is almost dissipated a little bit.”
Katie Ledecky, 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 800m freestyle, could add to her legacy at Trials. She owns the 400m, 800m and non-Olympic 1500m world records. She’s so dominant in her signature events, that rumors swirled she wasn’t coming into the meet fully rested – instead favoring to rest completely for the Olympics later on.
“[The strategy] makes a little bit of sense if you think about it. She can win the 400m and 800m [freestyles], and then the 200m – unless the wheels fell off completely – she’ll at least be top two in that. All she really wants to do in the 100m is make a relay anyway and I can’t see her not being top six. I’m sure she’s gonna rest a little bit but not completely. Really, it’s not that bad of a strategy, if they do that.”
Natalie Coughlin could become the fifth American woman to make four Olympic Games appearances, where she could add to her medal count and stand alone as the most decorated U.S. female Olympian of all time. She’s won 12 medals (three gold, four silver and five bronze) in 12 Olympic races.
“The great thing about Natalie is she’s so incredibly fit and I think that gives her confidence every time she swims. Just have to hope that Father Time isn’t catching up – but I don’t think it is with her. She’s raced in the Olympics 12 times and she’s won a medal 12 times. That’s astounding. So under-appreciated in so many ways. I think it gets lost how incredible that fact is. I wouldn’t have any doubt that she would make it 13 or 14.”
Nathan Adrian, defending 100m freestyle gold medalist, is consistent, dependable and possibly superhuman.
“You can count on him. You know he’s gonna put together a good split [in a relay]. You know he’s gonna anchor. You just have so much confidence in what he’s able to do individually – he’s always been there, too. He hasn’t won every meet, granted, but he’s always been there. That’s so hard to do in sprints. It’s so difficult to be able to be at the top or near the top consistently. He’s been able to do it. Plus, I just can’t believe I’m the same species as him! Really embarrassing.”
Expect Conor Dwyer to bring the fire: His stock has been rising since the 2012 Olympics, where he won a gold medal as part of the 4x200m freestyle relay.
“He is going to have one of those monster meets that you’ve been kind of waiting on. Not that he hasn’t swum well all these years but you think, ‘gosh, one of these days, this guy is going to bust out.’ Just from watching him in the NCAA’s earlier on in his career and what he did there, I just knew that this guy had something like he did in Santa Clara in him. He’s going to have one of those meets that is what the U.S. really needs.”
Dana Vollmer, the “momma on a mission,” is attempting to become the first woman to ever win a gold medal after giving birth. Her son, Arlen, was born in March 2015 and Vollmer was back in the water a few months later.
“She’s even admitted she gets really nervous and that those nerves have caused her to falter [Vollmer competed in the 2004 and 2012 Olympics, but missed out on 2008]. You don’t see that in her anymore because she really knows what’s important. At the end of the day she’s gonna have an amazing husband and a beautiful child to walk into their arms after the race and that really helps keep you focused on what’s really important. For her, it will help her. I think it will calm her.”
Matt Grevers is the defending 2012 gold medalist in the 100m backstroke, but the field is so deep that even the third-place finisher at Trials (who does not qualify for the Olympics) would likely have a shot at a medal in Rio.
“In the men’s 100m backstroke you’ve got three guys that literally, the guy who finishes third could potentially win the bronze medal at the Games – and not even go. It’s ridiculous! It just shows you how good the sport of swimming is in our country. The rest of the world has certainly caught up, but you’re gonna see two or three events here at Trials where you go, ‘wow, top three are unbeatable.’”
Maybe you haven’t heard her name yet, but 2015 Worlds silver medalist Maya DiRado is setting herself up to do big things in the pool this summer for Team USA. She’s already decided no matter the outcome, she’ll be leaving swimming behind at the end of this summer in favor of starting as a business analyst at McKinsey.
“She’s got her life ahead of her and she knows exactly what she wants. I think she understands swimming is that: it’s just swimming. Even though it’s a big deal and it’s a big swim race, it’s still just a swim race. I think that perspective will really help her at this level, too. you need a little bit of perspective to handle all the pressure.”
The lucky ones: Haley Anderson, Jordan Wilimovsky and Sean Ryan. They have already qualified for the 2016 Olympic team by earning spots in the open water marathon swim.
“Those guys are feeling no pressure. Well, they’re gonna feel pressure – but everything is just gravy for them. It’s ‘let’s go out and have some fun, it’s a practice swim.’ No better position to be in than Jordan, Sean and Haley.”
The not-so-lucky ones: Inevitably, because of the competition and the depth of American swimming, a big name might not make the 2016 Olympic team.
“There’s gonna be a big name that’s not gonna make the Olympic team, a huge name, and it’s not gonna be a shock. This is the Olympic Trials and we’ve grown accustomed to seeing surprises like this. There’s gonna be a big name – who that is I’m not real sure, but there will be.”