A Look at the Options for Adjusting the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials Time Standards

USA Swimming on Friday announced that the new dates for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, which will now run from June 13th-20th in Omaha, Nebraska. These dates are earlier in a sense: in terms of distance from the Olympic Games (July 23rd-August 8th), they are a week earlier.

In another sense, though, they are 51 weeks later. The latter is crucial for USA Swimming’s event planning. In prior years, crowded warmup pools and long prelims sessions have accompanied Olympic Trials qualifying lists that have numbered nearly 2,000 athletes, among other problems, creating potentially problematic situations when it comes to the meet’s primary stated purpose: choosing the best Olympic Team possible.

For anyone who doesn’t think that warmup pool overcrowding is a real issue – I bring attention to the fact that Elizabeth Beisel fractured a finger in the warmup pool at the 2016 Olympic Trials.

USA Swimming said that they wanted to hit a goal of between 1,200-1,400 swimmers, which they accomplished both by shrinking the qualifying period and making faster time standards. With 1,231 qualified as of today, they were on target with that goal – under normal circumstances, there would’ve still been a few dozen more qualifiers out of spring meets, but some of those qualified wouldn’t enter because they either decide to retire, get injured, or choose to represent another country.

But the extra 51 weeks, depending on how soon athletes are able to get in and resume training, presents a challenge to that goal.

USA Swimming says that they are likely going to leave qualifying open until June, but with a faster set of standards for new qualifiers. To be clear: Swimmers and swims that have already qualified are safe. This only impacts new swims and new swimmers between now and the 2021 Olympic Trials.

There are 3 primary factors in play here:

  1. How to be fair to those swimmers who were ready to qualify at last-minute meets this spring, but didn’t get that chance.
  2. The meet needs to create an ideal scenario for choosing the best Olympic Team possible under the circumstances
  3. We don’t know how these weeks, or months, out of the water will impact overall performance once swimming resumes.

USA Swimming knows that there’s no perfect solution, and that they can’t please all stakeholders. So the key is to find a balance and figure out how to get as close as possible to the first two, possibly opposing, goals at the same time.

We’ve come up with 2 ways that this problem could be addressed, which we’ve scoped out below in detail. Of course, the 3rd way, that a lot of fringe qualifiers would probably like to see, is to just leave the cuts the same. This is a viable option, but one that doesn’t really need much explanation.

1-Year Progression Method

Under this method, USA Swimming could look at the average 15-18 year old swimmer, and figure out how much they normally progress in a year. What does the average 15-year old boy who is going a 23.19 in the 50 free go when he’s 16? This would approximately mirror what the development should be of a young swimmer who was on the verge of getting a qualifying cut in 2020 should have progressed to in 2021.

Below we’ve come up with 2 tables. One is a straight calculation based on the top median times of the top 100 per event among 15, 16, and 17-year olds, progressed forward to top 100 American 16, 17, and 18-year olds.

There could also be a sliding fudge-factor introduced here depending on when practice and competition resumes for most of the country.

This method leans more toward the “fairness” principle in point 1 above, but without going too far and exploding the meet.

The Table

Men’s New Cut Men’s Median Men’s Cut Time Event Women’s Cut Time Women’s Media
Women’s New Cut
22.81 0.38 23.19 50 Free 25.99 0.14 25.85
49.68 0.81 50.49 100 Free 56.29 0.27 56.02
1:49.07 1.72 1:50.79 200 Free 2:01.69 0.97 2:00.72
3:53.53 3.76 3:57.29 400 Free 4:16.89 1.53 4:15.36
8:05.29 7.70 8:12.99 800 Free 8:48.09 5.24 8:42.85
15:26.41 18.48 15:44.89 1500 Free 16:49.19 10.01 16:39.18
55.66 0.93 56.59 100 Back 1:02.69 0.73 1:01.96
2:01.18 1.84 2:02.99 200 Back 2:14.69 1.12 2:13.57
1:02.07 1.22 1:03.29 100 Breast 1:10.99 0.65 1:10.34
2:15.62 2.27 2:17.89 200 Breast 2:33.29 1.31 2:31.98
53.25 0.94 54.19 100 Fly 1:00.69 0.55 1:00.14
1:58.61 2.58 2:01.19 200 Fly 2:14.59 1.29 2:13.30
2:02.33 1.76 2:04.09 200 IM 2:17.39 1.20 2:16.19
4:20.73 5.26 4:25.99 400 IM 4:51.79 1.52 4:50.27

Protecting the Finalists

This methodology leans toward the purpose of protecting the meet’s primary stated function as choosing the best Olympic Team possible.

Realistically, there are maybe 300 or 400 swimmers with a solid shot at making the approximately 50-swimmer U.S. Olympic Team roster. The vast majority of swimmers are slower than their seed times at the Olympic Trials, and so it’s a near impossibility for a true darkhorse to rise magically up the ranks from a 100 seed to make the team.

Everyone knows this, that for the majority of the swimmers at each Olympic Trials meet, the Olympic Trials was the goal, not the Olympic Games.

The delay of a year shouldn’t preclude USA Swimming, though, from capturing the upside, which is a last-minute qualifier who might capture some unbelievable momentum and make the team. Is it likely? No. But, should there be some protection for the just-in-case scenario? Katie Ledecky hit her Olympic Trials standard in July of 2011, about 11 months before the 2012 Olympic Trials. Then she won Olympic gold in London. So, there’s justification for it.

There are two ways to look at this. In 2016, the lowest-seeded swimmer to qualify for an Olympic Trials final was Jonathan Roberts, the 38th seed coming into the meet. That was a far lower seed than in the previous 3 Olympic Trials meets, where Gary Hall in 2004 made the 400 free relay as the 28th seed. Roberts finished 8th in that 200 free, but with the nature of taking 6 swimmers (usually) per free relay event, he was well within reach of a spot on the team.

Another approach would involve the premise that swimmers who won’t make the Olympic Team this year might be better-prepared with the experience in 4 years. While important, this idea is almost a non-starter looking historically: Caeleb Dressel, at 15-years old, was the 153rd seed in the 100 free at the 2012 Olympic Trials. There were only 98 swimmers at the 2016 Olympic Trials in the men’s 100 free. The jumps from teenagers to college swimmers can be so big and unpredictable in a 4-year cycle, that trying to project and protect in this case would result in lowering the time standards – pandemic or not.

So, we’ll focus on the former approach.

Men’s 38th Seed from 2016 Men’s Cut Time Event Women’s Cut Time Women’s 38th Seed from 2016
22.85 23.19 50 Free 25.99 25.66
49.95 50.49 100 Free 56.29 55.79
1:50.02 1:50.79 200 Free 2:01.69 2:00.29
3:56.02 3:57.29 400 Free 4:16.89 4:14.16
8:12.99 800 Free 8:48.09 8:43.27
15:32.66 15:44.89 1500 Free 16:49.19
55.88 56.59 100 Back 1:02.69 1:01.94
2:01.69 2:02.99 200 Back 2:14.69 2:12.90
1:02.18 1:03.29 100 Breast 1:10.99 1:09.50
2:15.98 2:17.89 200 Breast 2:33.29 2:30.73
53.81 54.19 100 Fly 1:00.69 1:00.01
2:00.38 2:01.19 200 Fly 2:14.59 2:12.97
2:03.31 2:04.09 200 IM 2:17.39 2:16.11
4:24.07 4:25.99 400 IM 4:51.79 4:48.61

Here’s where things get really interesting: this actually results in less of a reduction of time standards than the prior method on the men’s side. So, counterintuitively, this might be the more balanced approach, at least for men. For women, in most events, it results in a bigger drop.

So, it seems like this might be a good compromise method.

The big question, what will USA Swimming do? What Mike Unger said in an interview on Friday with SwimSwam’s Torrey Hart makes sense. The answer to that question can’t really be given until we know more about when people are going to be able to return to training and competition.

Most of what USA Swimming has some basis in reality. There’s usually not just a committee that gets together and decides what times look about right, it’s based on the Xth place from the previous year, or an average of X times from the previous X meets, or the current Xth ranked time.

If swimming doesn’t return to some semblance of normalcy until, say, January, the cuts probably won’t move at all, as there’s going to be a rather limited window for swimmers to hit new standards anyway.

As with everything over the past few months, there are far more unknowns than knowns at this point, and time will tell the full story.

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Cannon ball
2 years ago

My son was close to cuts and I am confident he would have got 2 so combine that with no championship meet for him, then no TYR and of course the sad issues our world is facing it’s been a truly crappy spring. Tough decision for committee and like anything some will be fine and some won’t but it’s out of our hands.

hey man
2 years ago

Why are we assuming they’ll get faster? Has nobody considered the possibility that they’ll get slower (assuming factor #3 in the article implies performances coming out of quarantine will generally be worse)?

Reply to  hey man
2 years ago

If they’re not planning to get faster, and they haven’t had their Trials cuts yet, then why should they be racing at the United States Olympic Trials? Send them to Juniors.

Reply to  Questions
2 years ago

I understand frustration from some people about the cuts getting faster, but that’s how it is for every championship meet in the country. Cuts get faster, so why shouldnt the biggest US meet get fast after one year? This meet is a hand out, you have to fully commit to working your tail off. The ones that really want it will think of it as a way to get better for trials.

2 years ago

What a diabolical problem! Changing qualification times seems unfair…but then again you cant have 5,000 swimmers turning up!
These are exceptional circumstances, sadly some people are going to be disappointed. If things are still grim next year they may have to strip down to trials to say 16 people per event. Who knows what 2021 holds!

2 years ago

No one knows today what next summer will be like. Predictions are changing almost daily as data comes out. If this anti body test comes out it will be it will be more apparent how many people have already been exposed to this, and depending on this they will know how bad it is and what to do.

Back in February we had a couple people at work who got knocked out with a fever and a bad cough for a bit. Who knows if this was the virus. I personally travelled through 5 airports that month (and 3 of the airports are in the top 4 cities effective) and attended several crowded sporting events. I think many folks… Read more »

2 years ago

No one knows today what next summer will be like. Predictions are changing almost daily as data comes out. If this anti body test comes out it will be it will be more

2 years ago

My daughter was a week away from going to NCSAs to attempt to get her cut in one of the freestyle distance events. It has always been her goal to make it to Trials. She knows that she has virtually no chance of ever making an Olympic team. I fully understand that the main reason for Trials is to form the best team for the Olympics. But for a very large percentage of the swimmers Trials is the goal. If the times are adjusted down as suggested in the article then those swimmers who were on the cusp of qualifying this year will have virtually no chance next year. A 10 second drop in the 1500 is a huge amount… Read more »

Reply to  Braden Keith
2 years ago

Last summer was a lost year due to a fall off a trampoline. But regardless of all that, I still think the underlying point is valid.

Reply to  John
2 years ago

If Braden has the correct times then this father does not have a realistic idea of how much swimmers can drop in their taper – probably not on the cusp of making OT cuts.

Reply to  MarkB
2 years ago

as a breastroker not sure how distance tapering works, but I dropped 9% in my 2 when I tapered. She only needs to drop 7% to make the cut. I don’t think it’s impossible for her, maybe just improbable.

Reply to  Braden Keith
2 years ago

84 seconds is more than a full 100m split.

2 years ago

Making the freestyle cuts much faster for 18 and under boys seems counter productive for development especially if there is not a bonus event system.

Let’s say the 200 cut becomes 1:49, if you’re an 18 and under boy going 1:49 your’re more than likely one of the most promising young swimmers in the country and have a chance to make youth travel teams.

Having these swimmers in a really limited number of events seems like its not helping USA swimming in the long run, especially on the boys side.

Swim mom
2 years ago

There should be no adjustment. There will be a big number that have already qualified that won’t hold on another year. It’s not the swimmers fault they didn’t get their spring meet to qualify!

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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