From 38th Trials Seed To Olympic Gold: The Stories of Low Seeds

In part one of this article, we went through a number of swimmers that defied the odds and broke their relatively low seeds to qualify for an Olympic Trials A Final. Morgan Scroggy, Kate Dwelley, Shannon Draves, and Katie Cowan each went into their respective meets with no sure shot that they would be swimming in the heat which would be deciding who would make the US Olympic team.

Lowest Seed to Qualify for a US Olympic Trials Final, Since 2000

38th seed Erin Phenix 100 Free 2000 Olympic Trials
28th seed Gary Hall Jr. 100 Free 2000 Olympic Trials
28th seed Gary Hall Jr. 100 Free 2004 Olympic Trials
28th seed Dana Vollmer 200 Free 2004 Olympic Trials
30th seed Gunnar Bentz 200 Free 2016 Olympic Trials


If you read the previous article, you will note that we didn’t cover Erin Phenix’s performance in which she went from 38th seed in the 100 freestyle to the A-final at Trials. The reason we left her out is that, unlike the others, not only did Phenix make it to the A-final, she actually made it all the way to the Olympics.

Phenix went into the 100 freestyle as the 38th seed with an entry time of 57.38. That was a decent amount of time away from top seeds Jenny Thompson (54.27), Dara Torres (54.47), and Amy Van Dyken (55.76). Phenix clearly came in ready to race as she immediately jumped 29 spots in the prelims, qualifying for the semis in 9th place with a 56.29.

Having already accomplished an incredible feat, Phenix was even faster in her second 100 freestyle of the meet when she hit a 55.96 for 8th in the semi-finals, qualifying for an Olympic Trials final. She had already moved up a whole 30 spots in the event, dropped nearly 2 seconds from her PB, and qualified for her first-ever Olympic Trials final. But Phenix was not yet finished.

Defying all odds, Erin Phenix finished 6th in the final, swimming a 55.61, and qualifying for her first-ever Olympic Games. Phenix managed to crush her 38th seed, ascending 32 spots to earn herself a spot as a relay swimmer in the 4×100 freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

At the Games, Phenix swam the second leg of the American preliminary 4×100 freestyle in a 56.02, helping the USA to a 1st place finish in the heats. Phenix’s teammates Amy Van Dyken, Dara Torres, Courtney Shealy, and Jenny Thompson went on to win gold in the final in world-record fashion of 3:36.61. For her efforts in the prelims, Phenix was also awarded Olympic gold.

GARY HALL JR. – 2000

While Phenix made the biggest jump at the 2000 Trials to qualify for the team, her fellow Olympian Gary Hall Jr. also managed to move up a significant amount from his original seed in the 100 freestyle. Hall was an interesting case, however, because while he had a 28th place seed in the 100 freestyle, he had actually won Olympic silver in the event 4 years prior.

Hall swam a 48.81 at the 1996 Games but between 1996 and 2000, Hall didn’t quite perform up to that standard in the lead up to the 2000 Trials. Among those factors which contributed to Hall’s 28th place seed was the fact that he was actually banned by FINA in 1998 following a positive marijuana test. The next year, Hall ended up taking a hiatus from the sport after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Hall returned, however, in the summer of 2000 and was ready to race.

Hall jumped from his original 28th seed to a second-place finish in the final, swimming a 48.84 and qualifying for his second Olympic team. At the Games, Hall managed to deliver another impressive performance as he wound up winning the bronze medal in the event, hitting a 48.73 to join Pieter van den Hoogenband (gold, 48.30) and Alex Popov (silver, 48.60) on the podium.

Now having won two Olympic medals in the 100 freestyle, it’s rather hard to believe that when he made his way back to Olympic Trials in 2004, Hall was once again seated 28th in the event.

His low seed in 2004 was once again a result of his lack of action in the years between the Games. At this point, Hall had acquired somewhat of a reputation of being very Olympic-focussed and not putting too much stock into other international meets. So once again going in with a 28th place seed, Hall came to Trials with a goal of earning a spot on his third Olympic team.

Hall was successful in that goal, winding up 3rd in the final with a 49.16 behind Jason Lezak’s winning 48.41 and Ian Crocker’s second place 49.06. That third-place finish was enough to get him a spot on the 4×100 freestyle relay. Hall swam the prelims for the USA, contributing to their second-place finish and helping them reach the final where the team ultimately won bronze behind South Africa for gold and the Netherlands for silver.


Joining Hall as a 28th seed to make the 2004 Olympic team was Dana Vollmer. Vollmer raced at her second-ever Olympic Trials in 2004, having been the youngest swimmer at the meet in 2000 at the age of 12. In 2004, Vollmer went in with a 28th place 2:02.47 but made an immediate impact in the heats, qualifying first to the semi-finals with a 2:00.24. In the semis, she fell to 3rd but managed to dip under 2:00 with a swim of 1:59.87. Vollmer returned, however, for one last swim and managed to pull off a victory in the event, winning the 200 freestyle in a 1:59.20 to qualify for her first-ever Olympic team.

Since she qualified first, she got to swim the event both individually and as a part of the 4×200 freestyle relay. In Athens, Vollmer wound up finishing 6th in the individual version of the event, swimming a 1:58.98. In the 4×200 relay, however, she, Natalie Coughlin, Carly Piper, and Kaitlin Sandeno pulled of an Olympic victory and world record-breaking swim of 7:53.42.

That she went from 28th seed to 1st place finisher in 2004 is the little-known origin story of now-iconic US Olympian Dana Vollmer. Vollmer of course went on to win triple gold at the 2012 Olympics, finishing first in the 100 butterfly, 4×100 medley, and 4×200 freestyle in Beijing. Most recently, Vollmer raced at the 2016 Olympic Games, winning gold in the 4×100 medley, silver in the 4×100 freestyle, and bronze in the 100 butterfly.

While it was a bit later in her career that Vollmer became known for the 100 fly, she actually pulled off an impressive performance in that event back at 2004 Trials, though not as impressive as her 100 free run. In the fly, Vollmer was seeded 28th at the start but made it all the way to the finals, finishing in 5th with a 59.21 behind top 4 finishers Rachel Komisarz (58.77), Jenny Thompson (58.98), Demerae Christianson (59.09)., and Dana Kirk (59.19).

19 years after her Olympic Trials debut and 15 after her first-ever Olympics, Vollmer retired from the sport in 2019.


Following Erin Phenix and Gary Hall Jr. in 2000 and the Hall and Dana Vollmer in 2004, the 2008 and 2012 and Olympic Trials featured considerably more predictable finishes. It wasn’t until 2016 that we saw another swimmer make the team from a seed as low as 30th place. That swimmer was Gunnar Bentz.

Back in 2016, Bentz was swimming for the University of Georgia Bulldogs and went into Olympic Trials with a 200 freestyle time of 1:49.85, good enough for a 30th place seed. In the prelims, however, Bentz jumped up to 6th, swimming a PB of 1:47.86 to qualify for the semis. There, he was even faster and hit a 1:47.80 but fell to 7th – still good enough for an Olympic final. In order to make the team, Bentz just needed to beat 2 people in the final and land in at least 6th. Ultimately, Bentz finished 5th in the event with a 1:47.33, out-swimming Clark Smith, Tyler Clary, and Jonathan Roberts.

Bentz qualified to race in the prelims of the 4×200 freestyle and helped the team secure a spot in the final. Ultimately, the finals squad of Conor Dwyer, Townley Haas, Ryan Lochte, and Michael Phelps wound up winning gold in the event with a 7:00.66. Since he swam in the prelims, Bentz was also awarded Olympic gold.

Going from 30th seed at Trials to Olympic gold just a few weeks later is just the kind of inspiring story that gives every young swimmer the hope they need to pursue excellence in the sport. The 10 cases of swimmers moving from a low seed in their event to an Olympic Trials final or an Olympic appearance will serve to motivate all those who attended the 2021 version of the meet, whether it be at Wave I or Wave II.

As we begin to get a better sense of who will be swimming at the next Olympic Trials this summer, we wonder who will rise to the occasion this year. Will someone be able to take out Morgan Scroggy’s 41st seed record and qualify for the A final? Or perhaps Erin Phenix’s 21-year run as the lowest-seeded swimmer to make the team will fall and we will see a 39-place jump.

Regardless of the outcomes, the 2021 Olympic Trials has already been shaping up as one that you won’t want to miss. As more info comes in regarding who will swim at which meet and how the Wave I / Wave II process will play out, be sure to stay up to date here at SwimSwam.

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1 year ago

96 had a few swimmers like this. Annette Salmeen came out of nowhere to win the 200 fly at Trials and qualify for the 800 free relay. Jilen Siroky in the 200 breast, and Sheila Taormina in the 200 free.

1 year ago

Fabulous article!!!

1 year ago

Erin Phenix’s story is the most amazing one. To not only make the team but bring home a gold medal? A real “Rudy” moment!

On the other hand, Gary Hall’s lack of preparation in 2004 is one of the reasons for USA’s poor 3rd place finish in 2004.

Reply to  RUN-DMC
1 year ago

How is that on Hall? He was the second fastest leg in the prelims, and had they used him in the final instead of Crocker, who was sick, they likely would’ve beaten the Netherlands for silver.

Reply to  RUN-DMC
1 year ago

Gary was left off of the relay in finals.

We lost it when Crocker lead off in a 50.05 . And after Roland Schoemans lead off of 48.1 Phelps and Neil Walker have to swim through a wall of water.

Reply to  Xman
1 year ago

Ian was in a bad mood. that day

1 year ago

What was MP seeded in the 200 fly in 2000?

Reply to  Drewbrewsbeer
1 year ago

MP had a 4th seed

Reply to  Drewbrewsbeer
1 year ago

4th. The field was not that deep behind Malchow.