USA Swimming hopes to have some spectators in the stands at its split U.S. Olympic Trials meets, but decisions, like the pandemic itself, are very fluid, USA Swimming’s Chief Operating Officer Mike Unger said today.
SwimSwam talked to Unger this morning, just hours after USA Swimming revealed its plan to split its Olympic Trials meet into two waves. You can read more about that plan via the link above, but the upshot is that the current Olympic Trials qualifying standards will allow athletes into the four-day Wave I meet, while a new, tougher standard will allow athletes into the Wave II meet. The top two finishers in each event at Wave I will be able to compete in the Wave II meet the following week, with the Olympic team selected based off of Wave II results.
Priorities on Health & Safety, Selecting Best Olympic Team
USA Swimming started with two main priorities, Unger said: (1) having a safe and healthy Trials in Omaha and (2) having the best Olympic team selected for Tokyo.
But while USA Swimming briefly considered capping qualifiers to create one small Olympic Trials meet with other qualifiers relegated to regional competitions, Unger says that wasn’t ever a top option.
“We also want to be very mindful of the experience athletes get,” Unger said, referencing young Trials qualifiers whose valuable experience competing in a Trials format could help them make the Olympic team four or eight years down the road.
That led to the idea of a two-wave meet. USA Swimming already had a “test event” leading up to its Trials. So why not morph that event into an official part of the Trials?
From there, it was a dive into data that helped solidify the details.
Data Drove the Focus on the 41st Seed Time
Unger says that as far back as last spring, when the Olympic Trials were first postponed to 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic, USA Swimming started weighing options if the 2021 event couldn’t go on in its traditional format. “We spent six months devising plans,” Unger says, with an eye on both the coronavirus pandemic and the growing number of Olympic Trials qualifiers.
For a time, Olympic Trials qualifier numbers stayed relatively low compared to the 1700+ qualifiers we’ve seen the past few Olympic cycles. But after the San Antonio and Richmond Pro Swim Series events earlier this month, Trials qualifiers crossed 1300 athletes for the first time.
“That’s too large to run a Trials safely in the COVID world,” Unger said. So the organization used the most updated Trials qualifier list to hammer out the numerical details.
“We started looking at some objective data to help us determine what to do with the field,” Unger said. Among that data:
- Looking back at the last five Olympic Trials (the era in which USA Swimming has run a bigger Trials meet and with a prelims/semifinals/finals format), the lowest incoming seed ever to make an Olympic Trials final was 41st-seeded Morgan Scroggy in the 200 back in 2008.
- In that same time frame, the lowest seed ever to make an Olympic team was 38th-seeded Erin Phenix in the 100 free in 2000.
- USA Swimming also used current Olympic Trials qualifiers to come up with ballpark numbers of unique athletes if the meet were split at a certain seed. There would currently be about 535 unique athletes seeded 40th or higher, and moving that number to 41st (with the significance of Scroggy’s status as the lowest seed to make a final) would up unique athletes to 550.
That helped USA Swimming decide on the current 41st-ranked time as the Wave II standard. With athletes still able to achieve that standard over the next four months, Unger said USA Swimming expects roughly 750 unique athletes in the Wave II meet, with between 600 and 700 in the Wave I meet.
The Wave II meet features the traditional prelims/semifinals/finals format used at the Olympics. The Wave I meet uses a modified version of the Pan Pacs event lineup, a four-day event order.
Decisions on Spectators, Health Protocols Still Coming
USA Swimming wanted a plan for the athlete field so qualifiers and coaches could prepare. But other details of the two-wave event remain in flux based on the ever-changing pandemic.
“We’re not ready to announce our plans [on spectators and health protocols] because it’s such a fluid world right now,” Unger said, noting that if they announced plans now, they’d almost certainly have to change multiple times by June.
However, USA Swimming does hope to have spectators at the meets in June, with a goal of somewhere around 60% of the venue capacity. Current state, county, and venue guidelines could permit up to 75% capacity, but Unger said USA Swimming is still working through the details to put the health and safety of athletes first.
Earlier today, the Wall Street Journal reported that it was “extremely likely” that a negative COVID test would be required for every attendee to enter the venue, and that regular on-site testing will also be likely. That system was implemented for the recent Pro Swim Series meets in Richmond and San Antonio, with no reported outbreaks from those events earlier this month.
What Could Change?
With the pandemic constantly changing, Unger noted that the Trials format could still change as well, though USA Swimming hopes to move forward with its two-wave plan.
“If we have to shrink the Trials, we have a caveat where we can do that,” Unger said. “We don’t want to. We didn’t want to do any of this – we want a full Trials. But we have to go back to the priorities of health and safety and selecting the best Olympic team.”
Unger also said that depending on numbers, USA Swimming could still decide to split women’s and men’s prelims into separate sessions, while keeping finals co-ed. The meet could also have some restrictions on venue and pool access, where athletes who aren’t competing that day are only allowed in the venue at certain times. That could help cut down on the number of athletes warming up and cooling down during sessions.