Olympic Trials for the Anonymous 100th Seed

The U.S. Olympic Trials are a massive meet with hundreds of entries in every event. For many of the swimmers at the meet, it’s the biggest meet they’ll ever swim in. For most, getting a qualifying time was a meaningful accomplishment. On paper everyone in the meet has a real chance at a spot on the Olympic team. We can look at past Olympic Trials to get a sense of how difficult a task it is for an anonymous swimmer to surprise and make an Olympic team.

Challenge #1: Make the final

Nobody qualifies for the Olympic Team without first making it out of prelims, but it’s pretty rare for swimmers with seeds higher than 24th to qualify for a final. In 2012, only 4 of 208 finalists came from seeds outside the top 24. Cody Miller in the 200 IM (seed 95th), Danielle Valley in the 800 Free (seed 29th), Shannon Draves in the 200 Fly (seed 45th), and Jason Schnur in the 50 free (seed 26th).

The good news is that, in 2012, the times required to make the final were often slower than the 8th place time on psych sheet. Here’s a breakdown of 8th place across rounds for Men:

Psych Sheet Semi Prelim
50 Freestyle 22.26 22.25 22.43
100 Freestyle 48.98 49.03 49.37
200 Freestyle 1:48.38 1:48.09 1:48.92
400 Freestyle 3:49.94 3:49.89
1500 Freestyle 15:07.29 15:10.55
100 Backstroke 54.22 54.51 54.38
200 Backstroke 1:58.30 1:59.68 2:00.32
100 Breaststroke 1:01.36 1:00.83 1:01.23
200 Breaststroke 2:12.91 2:12.00 2:12.72
100 Butterfly 52.50 52.52 52.77
200 Butterfly 1:58.21 1:58.45 1:58.70
200 IM 2:00.91 2:01.51 2:02.15
400 IM 4:16.86 4:19.33

and Women:

Psych Sheet Semi Prelim
50 Freestyle 25.16 25.27 25.23
100 Freestyle 54.35 54.6 54.88
200 Freestyle 1:58.26 1:58.64 1:59.18
400 Freestyle 4:08.57 4:10.38
800 Freestyle 8:32.36 8:36.59
100 Backstroke 1:00.77 1:00.76 1:01.25
200 Backstroke 2:11.27 2:12.37 2:12.34
100 Breaststroke 1:08.20 1:07.70 1:08.23
200 Breaststroke 2:26.93 2:27.21 2:28.72
100 Butterfly 58.60 58.72 59.05
200 Butterfly 2:09.28 2:11.00 2:11.68
200 IM 2:13.02 2:14.02 2:14.74
400 IM 4:41.87 4:43.17

The bad news is that since everyone enters their best time at Trials, it’s difficult to drop time. The largest drop in the entire meet last time for women was Breeja Larson who dropped -3.2% to win the 100 breast (seed 1:08.08 final time 1:05.92) and for men was Brendan McHugh who dropped -4.4% in the 200 breast to move from 107th to 16th (seed 2:20.02, prelim time 2:13.87). The male swimmers median time change was an increase of .60% and the female swimmers added a median of 1.15% (this was calculated with a swimmer’s best time between Prelims, Semis and Finals vs their psych sheet time). Here’s an event by event breakdown of median time change vs seed at the 2012 trials (positive is slower, negative is faster):

Men Women
All 0.60% 1.15%
Free 0.65% 0.95%
Back 0.72% 1.23%
Breast 0.55% 1.47%
Fly 0.47% 1.13%
IM 0.70% 1.38%
50 0.62% 0.95%
100 0.48% 1.06%
200 0.54% 1.30%
400 0.95% 1.26%
800 1.41%
1500 0.93%
50 Free 0.62% 0.95%
100 Free 0.45% 0.74%
200 Free 0.46% 0.82%
400 Free 0.95% 1.06%
800 Free 1.41%
1500 Free 0.93%
100 Back 0.56% 1.22%
200 Back 0.74% 1.35%
100 Breast 0.56% 1.40%
200 Breast 0.53% 1.57%
100 Fly 0.46% 0.93%
200 Fly 0.51% 1.47%
200 IM 0.46% 1.16%
400 IM 0.99% 1.45%

Relative to seed time, swimmers seeded in the top 24 spots out performed those seeded outside the top 24. For the men, swimmers seeded in the top 8 outperformed the 9-24 seeds. (again, positive means slower than seed time, negative means faster. Smaller is better.)

 

Median Time Change
Men Women
Top 8 0.17% 0.64%
Top 24 0.37% 0.65%
>24 0.68% 1.25%

Only 19% of women’s times and 32% of men’s times were faster than their seed time.

If a low seeded swimmer does manage to drop time, they typically have to drop quite a bit to make a final. In 2012 between 8th and 50th on the psych sheet there was a difference of 3-4% and a difference of 4-5% between 8th and 100th. In 2012 there were 5 swims that were at least 3% faster than seed out of 3350. That’s .1%. Of those 5, 2 were from the same swimmer (Brendan McHugh 100 and 200 breast) and 1 was already seeded in the top 8 (Breeja Larson 100 breast).

 

Challenge #2: Finish in the Top 2

Even if a swimmer manages to qualify for finals, they still need to beat the true contenders. There are 52 individual qualifying spots. In 2012, 34 went to top 2 seeds and another 9 went to swimmers seeded 3rd. No one from outside the top 16 seeds qualified. Here’s a breakdown of seed vs final place. Final place is the rows. Psych sheet place is the columns.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
1 14 6 3 1 2
2 8 6 6 2 1 1 1 1
3 4 4 3 5 4 4 1 1
4 3 2 2 4 1 3 3 2 2 1 1 1 1
5 2 2 2 4 2 1 3 3 1 2 1 1 1
6 2 3 1 1 2 3 1 4 1 1 1 1 1 1 2 1
7 2 3 2 4 3 4 1 1 1 1 1 1
8 4 2 1 2 2 2 2 3 2 2 1 1


As with 8
th place, the 2nd place times from the psych sheet lined up pretty well with the 2nd place times in finals.

Men 2nd Place Psych vs Finals:

Psych Sheet Final
50 Freestyle 21.97 21.60
100 Freestyle 48.08 48.46
200 Freestyle 1:44.79 1:45.75
400 Freestyle 3:47.33 3:47.83
1500 Freestyle 14:54.99 14:52.51
100 Backstroke 53.04 52.86
200 Backstroke 1:54.69 1:54.88
100 Breaststroke 1:00.19 1:00.15
200 Breaststroke 2:09.64 2:09.97
100 Butterfly 51.26 51.32
200 Butterfly 1:55.72 1:55.12
200 IM 1:54.16 1:54.93
400 IM 4:09.20 4:07.89

Women 2nd Place Psych vs Finals:

Psych Sheet Final
50 Freestyle 24.70 24.73
100 Freestyle 53.67 54.15
200 Freestyle 1:55.06 1:56.79
400 Freestyle 4:05.40 4:04.18
800 Freestyle 8:24.05 8:21.87
100 Backstroke 59.18 59.49
200 Backstroke 2:07.48 2:07.58
100 Breaststroke 1:05.90 1:05.99
200 Breaststroke 2:24.30 2:23.03
100 Butterfly 57.32 57.57
200 Butterfly 2:06.89 2:07.72
200 IM 2:09.39 2:11.30
400 IM 4:35.60 4:34.48

There was usually a 1% to 3% difference between the time needed to make a final and the time needed to get 2nd.

Comparison between 8th place in prelims/semis to 2nd place in finals:

Men Women
50 Free -2.9% -2.1%
100 Free -1.2% -0.8%
200 Free -2.2% -1.6%
400 Free -0.9% -2.5%
800/1500 Free -2.0% -2.8%
100 Back -3.0% -2.1%
200 Back -4.0% -3.6%
100 Breast -1.1% -2.5%
200 Breast -1.5% -2.8%
100 Fly -2.3% -2.0%
200 Fly -2.8% -2.5%
200 IM -5.4% -2.0%
400 IM -4.4% -3.1%

For context only 335 swims (out of 3350) were -.8% better than their seed time. Only 52 were -2% better. Such a drop would need to be on top of what was probably already an all out swim just to make the final.

It’s not impossible for someone to make a huge jump and make the team out of nowhere. This analysis relied on only one previous Olympic Trials. People who make the Olympic Team are outliers by definition and are therefore hard to predict. It does seem safe to predict that few seeds outside the top 24 will final, and that the majority of Olympians will come from the top 5 seeds.

 

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CoachAdam

That’s why you swim the meet!

PAC12BACKER

Excellent article!

John haas

Very insightful article. Keep em coming.

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