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|
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):