Is a Late U.S. Olympic Trials a Disadvantage?

The U.S. Olympic Trials are frequently criticized for being much closer to the Olympics than the trials meets of many other countries around the world. Essentially all U.S. swimmers have to full taper for trials to make the Olympic team (maybe not Katie Ledecky). Those who qualify have about a month to re train/taper for the Olympics. The theory goes that this isn’t enough time for swimmers to perform at their absolute best at the Olympics coming off a trials taper. However, there is evidence this isn’t the disadvantage many think it is. In fact the US trials proximity to the Olympics may actually be an advantage.

To test this, I compared the US’s performance at the Olympics vs their Olympic Trials to Australia’s performance at the Olympics vs their Olympic Trials for 2012 and 2004 (skipping 2008 does a couple things. It avoids any issues with the super suits and it gives the sample a more diverse athlete pool. Also I compared best times at each meet regardless of round). Australia is a solid comparison for the US. They have a deep athlete pool that requires their top athletes to rest at trials to guarantee a spot on the team and their Olympic Trials is held in March, 3 months before US Trials.

Relative to their Trials times, US swimmers were better than the Australians at the Olympics. Australian men added a median of .6% to their Trials times. US men’s times had a median change of 0%. Similarly for the women, the Australians added .3% and the US dropped .2%. US swimmer’s were also more consistent than their Australian counterparts, with a lower standard deviation of their time drops (see table below).

US swimmers avoided large time adds more than the Australians. The US men had 1 time add of more than 2% (Jason Lezak 2004, 100 Free) vs 6 for the Australian men. The US women had 2 time adds over 2% (Kate Ziegler 2012 800 free and Katie Hoff 2004 400 IM) vs 5 for the Australian women. The Australians did have a couple of time drops over 3%, but they came in events that were largely uncompetitive for the top swimmers at Trials (Stephanie Rice and Thomas Fraser-Holmes in the 2012 400 IM where Australia only had 2 swimmers under the Olympic A standard at trials for men and women. Rice and Fraser-Holmes were 11 and 6 seconds ahead of 3rd place).

A less competitive Trials meet should lead to star swimmers dropping big time at the Olympics as they don’t have to take qualification as seriously. The fact that there are cases that appear to be exactly this effect padding the Australian numbers and the Australians still add more time than the Americans is reasonably compelling evidence that the US trials date isn’t a disadvantage.

Here are the summary stats of the time changes (positive is slower):

AUS Women USA Women AUS Men USA Men
Average 0.4% 0.0% 0.5% 0.0%
Median 0.3% -0.2% 0.6% 0.0%
Standard Deviation 1.3% 1.1% 1.3% 0.8%

Here’s how the men’s time changes were distributed (52 US men’s times vs 48 for the Australians due in part to this):


Here’s how the women’s time changes were distributed (51 AUS times, 52 US):


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46 Comments on "Is a Late U.S. Olympic Trials a Disadvantage?"

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As a world swimming fan it would be brilliant if USA set a qualifying period and took the top two individual times from this- imagine how much faster world meets would be with the top tier americans battling to have the fastest times on the board, both at meets home and abroad. I think what you get with trials where it is – some decide not to fully taper and bank on qualifying(some miss out because of this,while some step to another gear at olympics). – some put up their best performance ever and then repeat this at the olympics within a small margin(maybe then you look at others who ‘could’ have gone faster or maybe this was just outside… Read more »
Attila the Hunt

“As a world swimming fan it would be brilliant if USA set a qualifying period and took the top two individual times from this”

Umm… actually it’s been sort of been implemented for 2015 Kazan World Championships where the fastest times from US nationals and Pan Pacs were selected and the selected swimmers had almost one year to prepare for Kazan.

Did you like the results?

Many times, it’s been proven that the current selection format works the best for USA.

Surely with it being over a period, if any events were very close then the final “qualifying” meet would end up more or less as trials anyway?

Attila the Hunt

Another disadvantage is that the swimmers will be forced to taper several times during the qualifying period to hit their fastest times, very disruptive to their training blocks surely (unless your last name is Hosszu).

can you imagine thinking your time was solid and then someone knocks you out the last week of the qualifying period when you have returned to heavy training.. ouch.. like the concept though..

The first timers in past Olympics have always found a way to improve or go right around their times, otherwise the stats the author included would have looked a lot different. I’m not sure why everyone thinks it’s going to be different this time around

Attila the Hunt

I agree.

Here’s the list of men’s first timers at London Olympics:
Conor Dwyer, Scott Weltz, Clark Burckle, Nick Thoman, Tyler Clary, Tyler McGill, Jimmy Feigen, Matt McLean, Charlie Houchin, Davis Tarwater, Andrew Gemmell, Connor Jaeger

Only Tyler McGill and Andrew Gemmel were slower in London. Gemmel swam his fastest 1,500 prelims though, placed 9th.
NIck Thoman was a few hundredth seconds slower, but won silver anyway.

I haven’t looked at women, but I’m sure it’s similar.

I’ve wondered that question and first I saw that as a big disadvantage. But I think the US coaches and swimmers know very well how to double taper. They are used to that for a long time. Sure it’s easier for the stars who don’t have to peak at trials.
It’s inconceivable elsewhere but it doesn’t look like a big problem in USA. If not, you wouldn’t have crushed everybody in London with 16 golds out of 32.
In resume, if USA wins “only” 7 or 8 golds in Rio, I will not blame that system and start a debate about that. It will be simply because there are less dominant swimmers in the team compared to London. As simple as that.

Attila the Hunt

Glad that you have finally seen the light, Bobo.
It’s a nice change and a step in the right direction.
Keep it up!




Don’t let Bobo see this.

On a second thought, it does not matter. He will still say till the end of time that US trials close to the Olympics is a disadvantage despite evidence suggesting otherwise.