But with the competition schedule heading into June’s U.S. Olympic trials abbreviated and meet formats modified, Wilson felt he had to take advantage of every racing opportunity, so he flew to San Antonio for this month’s TYR Pro Swim Series event. The event is spread across two sites with a second set of swimmers gathered in Richmond, competing in what was essentially a time trial meet. It was the first long-course meet of the calendar year, an important mile marker with the trials just five months down the road.
While growing uncertainty surrounds the Tokyo Games, which are scheduled to begin in barely six months’ time, many Tokyo hopefuls, such as Wilson, are wrestling with competition schedules that have been tweaked — or in many cases, wrecked — by the coronavirus pandemic.
A Pro Swim Series meet typically includes 500 or more competitors, but the modified event, which concluded Sunday, was invitation-only and limited to 200, about one-quarter of whom are national team members. Even with precious few racing opportunities, several swimmers opted to skip the competition, including Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel and Simone Manuel, preferring to continue their Olympic training at home. For many, choosing to race in a meet means navigating the risks of travel but also facing possible quarantines — and missed training — when they return home, based on restrictions and protocols in their communities and pools.
Many of the top American swimmers are all but assured of heading into the trials with fewer live racing laps under their belts than they had ahead of previous Olympics. Ledecky, for example, competed in five long-course events in the season leading into the 2016 Olympics, plus a pair of short-course meets. Preferring not to stray far from her training base at Stanford University, Ledecky hasn’t had a formal race in 10½ months. She now has passed on the two Pro Swim Series meets this season — the first was in November, spread across nine cities — and will have only three Pro Swim Series opportunities before the trials.
The atypical schedule has forced coaches to adjust. Ledecky, Manuel and their Stanford teammates are still following the race schedule from this weekend’s meet, recording times in the Stanford pool and unofficially competing against counterparts who are registered for the event. “Not perfect without a true meet environment,” Greg Meehan, Stanford’s women’s coach, said midway through the competition, “but it’s been great so far.”
In addition to simulated competitions, Meehan has scheduled dual meets against nearby swimmers from the University of California. He is targeting the next two Pro Swim Series events for his swimmers, if conditions allow, and they are also planning to train at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this spring.
“Because we’ve been in this pandemic for such a long time, I trust that coaches around the country have figured out how to manage their current climate and are doing the things they need to prepare their athletes for success,” he said.
For many, that meant gathering in San Antonio and Richmond this weekend to test their mettle against live competition at last. While most of the top swimmers traveled to San Antonio, they were still competing against counterparts in Richmond. The fragmented format meant swimmers didn’t always know what they were chasing.
Lilly King is the Olympic champion and world record holder in the 100-meter breaststroke, virtually unbeatable the past couple of years. She easily won the 100-meter final in San Antonio on Friday, breezing to the wall in 1:07.14. Little did she know that 1,500 miles away, Emily Escobedo was posting a time in the same event 0.03 seconds faster. The next night, it happened again. In Saturday’s 200 final, Escobedo pushed a faster pace in Richmond and finished in 2:23.46, more than two seconds faster than King in San Antonio.
“I’m a racer, and the race was in Richmond tonight, I guess,” King said after her first race. “I would have obviously much rather had everybody here in the same location.”
Wilson had been looking forward to this meet for weeks. Training can be difficult if there’s not a goal or actual race in sight.
“I’m someone who benefits from meets and racing. I think of meets as part of my training,” he said. “It’s definitely hard when that piece is missing.”
On Friday, he posted only the sixth-best time in the 100 breaststroke (1:02.44), a full 3½ seconds off what he’s capable of — and then finished seventh in Saturday’s 200-meter race with a time of 2:18.53, more than seven seconds behind the winner, Nic Fink. Wilson’s first live racing event since March had gotten off to a disappointing start, and with fewer opportunities to test himself against the nation’s best, he is hoping to shake it off.
“Everyone’s in a different place,” he said. “It’s almost dangerous to compare yourself to other people right now. You don’t know what access to pools they’ve had or where they are in their training cycle.”
Even if the times aren’t ideal, the race experience can still help. The weekend meet is being staged without spectators, sapping some of the energy from the pool deck. But that could be the norm this year.
“In all likelihood, trials will be a no-fans event. So getting used to racing with that silence, which is abnormal, is really necessary,” Wilson said. “It’s up to the athletes who can do the best in that environment to still get pumped up and channel their adrenaline when it’s not coming in externally.”
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