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USA Swimming shrinks Olympic trials as safety precaution

Ryan Held competed in the 100-meter final at the TYR Pro Swim Series in San Antonio. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

With the rescheduled Tokyo Games less than six months away, USA Swimming will curtail its Olympic trials event because of continued coronavirus risks, limiting the number of swimmers who can take part.

The organization announced Tuesday morning that it will have fewer than half its usual number of competitors — 750 swimmers vying for one of 50 or so spots on the U.S. Olympic team. The trimmed list of participants will reduce the number of people inside CHI Health Center in Omaha and allow for swimmers to maintain a safe social distance — “a safer and healthier environment for the competitors and everyone involved,” USA Swimming said in a news release.

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In the age of Michael Phelps, the trials had blossomed into a full-blown spectacle with pyrotechnics on the pool deck and some of the world’s fastest swimmers providing the fireworks in the water. The nationally televised meet is staged before sold-out crowds over eight days, previewing the athletes who are about to become Olympic stars.

Part of the trials’ charm has been the sheer number of participants, the vast majority with little to no chance of making the Olympic team. While USA Swimming targets a number closer to 1,200 qualifiers, in 2016 more than 1,700 swimmers earned a spot at the trials, fewer than 9 percent of whom had actually posted an Olympic qualifying time.

Preferring to keep the doors as open as possible, USA Swimming will stage a preliminary meet this year — a “Wave I” event — for 600 or so lower-seeded swimmers on June 4-7 in Omaha. The top two finishers in each event there will advance to the showcase event on June 13-20 — the “Wave II” meet — where they will race in the same pool as Olympic medalists such as Katie Ledecky, Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Lochte.

“It’s the greatest spectacle in swimming,” Tim Hinchey, USA Swimming’s president and chief executive, said in an interview Tuesday. “The reality is, as important as it is to create that fantastic Super Bowl-like environment for our top elite athletes — and we know that experience has absolutely transferred into gold medals and results at Olympic Games — we also know for that 12- or 13-year-old, walking into that stadium and experiencing this kind of meet is also aspirational to the next set of Games. It’s got to touch both sides.”

Hinchey said the two meets will look and feel the same — “I think it’s going to feel like one major event,” he said — and adjusting the trials format is the best way to safely accommodate so many participants. More than 1,300 swimmers have already posted times fast enough to qualify for the trials, and USA Swimming was faced with the possibility of a crowded pool deck and increased virus exposure for Tokyo hopefuls.

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Event organizers are still working out a detailed health and safety plan, and no decision has been made yet on spectators at trials. Hinchey said he is “cautiously optimistic” that at least some fans will be able to attend the trials in-person. Five years ago, nearly 200,000 spectators attended the eight-day event, but USA Swimming has yet to put tickets on sale for this June’s trials. Local regulations in Omaha allow for 75 percent capacity at CHI Health Center, which is usually home to the Creighton University basketball teams but also hosts concerts, rodeos and professional wrestling events.

NBC is still expected to broadcast the Wave II showcase event, but USA Swimming has not sorted out broadcast plans for its preliminary Wave I meet.

While a vaccine is being administered to portions of the population, organizers couldn’t count on it being widely available by June and are planning as though its participants and officials will not yet be vaccinated.

“I think our position right now, at least from USA Swimming’s perspective, is we will get in line where it’s appropriate,” Hinchey said. “We’re not going to jump in front of those who need it now. … We’ll wait our turn and, if our turn is before the trials so that our athletes, coaches and officials can do it, fantastic.”

As USA Swimming’s membership rolls grew in the wake of Phelps’ dominance, its marquee event flourished — becoming bigger, more elaborate and accommodating more competitors.

“The gift of God, Michael Phelps — that’s what he did for us,” former USA Swimming chief executive Chuck Wielgus said in 2013. “He brought people who weren’t swimming-family people through the door.”

While nearly half of this year’s Omaha competitors won’t swim at the marquee event, they’ll still get a taste of the trials.

“We want to keep that promise to the first-timer, not just the veteran, and I think this accomplishes that,” Hinchey said. “We know that 13-year-old may not have an impact this year, but history tells us it makes a big impact for the next Olympic Games. Already knowing that our next quad went from four years down to three, this is important.”