A pandemic and an Olympic postponement separated the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials and 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials. Surprisingly, they did not have a significant negative impact on the amount of times that were faster than seed times posted at the 2020 Trials in comparison to in 2016.
The 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials were unique in that there were two “Waves” of racing that were separated by qualifying times. This was to limit the number of athletes competing at the same time to promote COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
Wave I had slower qualifying times than Wave II and was contested only as prelims and finals.
Wave II was the top 40 swimmers in each event, under the qualifying standard. It took place at the same venue as Wave I, CHI Health Center in Omaha, the following week. Wave II had the typical Olympic Trials setup of prelims, semifinals, and finals.
Since Wave II contained the top 40 swimmers in each event, to compare the two Olympic cycles more accurately we put the percentage of times faster than seed times at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Wave II against the percentage of times faster than seed times at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials for people seeded in the top 40.
Looking at only the top 40 seeds in each cycle, each meet put up a similar percentage of times faster than seed times with 2020 having slightly more. 2020 competitors posted 29.6% best times while in 2016 the top 40 seeds posted 26.1% best times:
Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2020 U.S.Olympic Trials Wave II
Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials (Top 40 Seeds)
The percentage of times faster than seed times was higher on the men’s side for both cycles, most significantly with 2020 Wave II men cracking 30 percent. Note that seed times do not always mean lifetime best times.
This comparison is interesting because multiple factors made 2020 an abnormal Olympic Trials year. Besides the fact the meet was postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, health safety protocol limited both training and competition opportunities for months.
And surprisingly, swimmers still dropped an average of 29.6% of times faster than their seed times at Wave II.
At Wave I, however, only 18.3% of the swims were faster than the swimmers’ entry times. This may seem low, but if you compare it to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials as a whole it only trails their percentage of beating seed times by 2.6 percent:
Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Wave I
Percentage of Times Faster Than Seed Times at 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Overall
What does this information tell us?
That a pandemic did not have a significant negative impact on the overall improvement of times compared to the improvement of times (upon entry times) at the 2016 Olympic Trials.
It is important to note that this does not indicate that the overall speed of swimmers was not affected. For example, It took a 53.28 for Abbey Weitzel to win the 2016 100 free final, but she won in 2020 with a 53.53.
On the other hand, Regan Smith won the 100 back final with a 58.35, about .7 faster than the time that won Olivia Smoliga gold in 2016. A deeper look into the results would have to be done in order to make any assertions about the speed of 2016 Trials versus 2020 Trials.
There was also a significantly smaller amount of swimmers competing at the 2020 Trials. There were 3057 athletes at the 2016 Trials and 2285 at the 2020 Trials (with both Waves combined.)