American swimmers haven’t tackled such a scheduling quirk since the Beijing Olympics nearly 13 years ago, when organizers and broadcasters were eager to showcase Michael Phelps’s chase for eight gold medals live in prime time back home. So to prepare for Tokyo, USA Swimming will stage a meet this week in Mission Viejo, Calif., that aims to mimic the unconventional Olympic schedule.
“We did the same thing back in 2008: flipped the prelims and finals in the spring meet right before trials,” said Lindsay Mintenko, the managing director for the U.S. national team. “It feels important to give them a practice run with the format so they aren’t doing it for the first time at the Olympic Games.”
In truth, many of the top American swimmers have been preparing for morning finals since Tokyo organizers confirmed the schedule in September 2018, and this week’s Mission Viejo meet amounts to a dress rehearsal of sorts. Two-time Olympian Katie Ledecky is eager to go through the motions, beginning with Thursday evening’s 200-meter freestyle preliminary heat. She’ll then get a full night’s rest before returning to the pool Friday morning to race in the event’s final.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about so much,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I feel like I’ve tried to use the extra year to think through the things I need to think about for that flipped schedule: sleep — how many hours I want to wake up before my race — what do I want to be eating, that kind of stuff.”
Just four current national team members — Nathan Adrian, Matt Grevers, Allison Schmitt and Ryan Lochte — competed at the 2008 Games. For the other Olympic hopefuls, it’s an unfamiliar regimen, and the challenges are both mental and physical. They need to tap into some post-breakfast adrenaline and make sure their bodies are loose and ready to perform.
“You want to give yourself some extra time, some extra fuel to make sure you’re fully awake and primed for your fastest swimming,” Ledecky said. “So I’ve been thinking a lot about those different things, and Mission Viejo will be a great way to practice that, get a feel for it, and hopefully build some confidence.”
There are some logistical advantages to a morning finals, too. Ledecky won five medals at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, four of which were gold. That meant a lot of late nights at the pool, where Ledecky had to fulfill post-race media obligations, go through doping control and attend medal ceremonies before she could board a bus back to the Olympic Village. Many nights she wasn’t getting to bed until 2 a.m.
By contrast, an evening in Tokyo with only low-pressure qualifying races and fewer time demands could mean a better night’s sleep before waking up to chase a medal.
Most swimmers are plenty familiar with alarm clocks and are accustomed to hitting the pool in the mornings. But many Tokyo hopefuls long ago tweaked their workout routines and made sure their early sessions are now the more demanding ones.
The U.S. Olympic swimming trials will still feature a traditional schedule, but right after that, USA Swimming will start helping all of its Tokyo-bound athletes adjust and build their days around racing fastest earlier in the day.
They’ll start with a domestic camp, where swimmers can expect to be pushed harder in the mornings. And then they’ll head overseas and continue their camp somewhere in Asia — as close to Tokyo’s time zone as possible. Swimming officials say it’s important for swimmers to adjust to the time change and create a habit of starting the day with heavy sets and accelerated heart rates.
“We can’t control the schedule in Tokyo. They’ve already made this decision, so let‘s figure out a way to help our bodies and make sure we know how to deal with it when the time comes,” Mintenko said. “At the end of the day, these guys know how to race. You tell them when they have to do it, and they’ll do it. They’ll step up.”
The Mission Viejo meet will feature around 300 swimmers, including several Olympic medal contenders such as Caeleb Dressel and Lilly King. The final big meet before trials is scheduled for May 12-15 in Indianapolis and will feature a conventional schedule with evening finals.