Unger Sheds Light On New Olympic Trials Qualifying Window

Following this week’s announcement that 2018 Summer Nationals will not count for 2020 Olympic Trials qualification, we caught up with USA Swimming Chief Operating Officer Mike Unger for more information on the shortened qualifying period.

“The last couple of Trials have been quite large,” Unger said. “We had over 1800 back in 2012 and 1750 in 2016.” Unger also noted that the qualifiers numbered over 1900, with some of the qualifiers ultimately not competing. “We want a large Trials, but those numbers are too large.”

Unger says the meet and facility strained to accommodate a competing group that large – even just finding seating for athletes and coaches to watch the meet.

USA Swimming has frequently expressed its ideal of 1200 to 1400 athletes competing at Olympic Trials. That’s where the meet was at in 2000 and 2008, says Unger, though it has exploded in size in the Olympic cycles since. Here are some rough numbers Unger shared for Olympic Trial participants at the last 7 Olympic Trial meets:

Year Participants
1992 300-400
1996 440
2000 1200
2004 730
2008 1225
2012 1800
2016 1750

“We want kids and coaches to make the meet,” Unger said. “The person that gets 114th place in the women’s 100 backstroke at one Trials may be in the final at the next Trials.

“We’re not trying to cut out that 114th-place person. We are trying to cut out the 168th-place person.”

Unger said USA Swimming’s decision to shorten the qualifying window was made, in part, because it shouldn’t impact many potential finalists or semifinalists. Swimmers who qualify for Olympic Trials two years out, then don’t hit the qualifying time again, are historically longshots to qualify for a second swim at Trials, Unger says.

“If you haven’t re-done the time standard, it’s extraordinarily rare for you to come back and actually qualify for a final or a semifinal,” Unger said. “We have to remember that this meet is about picking the best possible team we can pick for the Olympic Games. While the experience of that person who gets 110th place is important, it’s not as important as making sure we have the best team possible in Tokyo.”

Other key notes:

  • Unger said USA Swimming already had a rough idea of its Olympic Trials qualifying times, but that this summer’s nationwide results would also factor in to the final time standards.
  • Expect the Olympic Trial qualifying times to come out in early September – Unger said USA Swimming is considering releasing the time standards as part of a live webcast as they did for the 2016 Trials, but that decision hasn’t yet been finalized.
  • While an Olympic Trials meet with lots of qualifiers tends to sell lots of tickets to family and friends coming to watch swimmers they know, Unger said ticket sales to locals – people from Omaha or in Omaha who didn’t necessarily travel there specifically to watch the swim meet – have risen steadily over the last three Trials. Unger also said about half the total tickets sold sell within the first few months they are on sale, and those are typically bought not by parents or friends of swimmers, but by “swimming aficionados” who want to experience the Trials atmosphere first-hand.
  • While 2018 Summer Nationals won’t count for qualifying, athletes will have three other national-level chances to qualify: Unger noted that 2018 Winter Nationals have been changed to long course meters, and said that 2019 Winter Nationals will also be long course, as USA Swimming typically does the year before the Olympics. That’s in addition to 2019 Summer Nationals.

Addendum: Alcohol Sale Guidelines Not a Change From Existing Policy

The other big news to come out last week involved the minutes of a USA Swimming Board of Directors meeting from February in which a task force presented guidelines for the sale of alcohol at senior-level swim meets. While the task force itself was only assembled in the fall of 2017, Unger said that the guidelines themselves had largely been a part of the organization for years.

Unger says alcohol has been sold at USA Swimming events dating back to 2004, and that the task force presentation in February was merely “re-emphasizing” the organization’s guidelines for the sale of alcohol. Unger said he wasn’t part of the task force and didn’t know if all the guidelines were reiterating old policies or if there were any new additions to organization policy, but said the presentation didn’t constitute a decision by USA Swimming to start selling alcohol where it previously hadn’t.

“It looked like there was this big decision was made,” Unger said of the meeting minutes. “There was no big decision made.”

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Can he shed some light as to what USA Swimming is doing with more pressing issues?

We know our safe sport director left. Is there a replacement?

We know our club development director let. Is there a replacement?

Should members just reach out directly to Bob Allard since the only time we get communication from Colorado Springs is after Bob Allard sends a letter?


Do we even have a national team director yet?

The role as it was under Busch, Schubert is no more. The duties have been split up between Unger and Lindsey Mintenko. You can read more about that here: https://swimswam.com/usa-swimming-restructures-national-team-ungermintenko-to-lead/


Semantics. Your article mentioned that they would hire a National Team Technical Advisor to the National Team Division in the upcoming weeks. That was in October. Still no hire.


Do we suffer from the lack of a club development director? I would argue we do not. Even so, I think that the thought toward trials is that it is to produce the best team for the US on and ongoing basis. What is best for the next team might not be what is best to produce the best teams for the next two or three cycles. The meet should produce a great team but also set the stage to produce a great team in the next quadrennium as well. I believe that means a meet that is large enough to include a large amount of younger swimmers who will mature and be our team in four years. The meet… Read more »


This isn’t just about the qualifiers, it’s about the sport. I’ve been to Omaha the last two cycles, and the meet is like no other event. Limiting entrants will also limit interest in attending, which would make it less attractive to the host city. Do you think Omaha would profit as much from 800 entrants?

I’ll just leave this here…. https://swimswam.com/omahas-convention-authority-attributes-big-profits-16-swim-trials/


It would be great to have 3000!swimmers but that isn’t the best scenario to run a safe and fast meet for all. They deemed 1800 is a bit big for the venue etc. let’s respect that. It isn’t a meet for everyone but for the elite in our sport. Not everyone gets a trophy mentality isn’t the best for our Trials.


3000 isn’t the mentality. Hyperbole much?

1800 worked, maybe 1600 would work better.


Did you read the article at all?


Sorry, I don’t think people are coming to watch the 125th place 100flyer except Mom and Dad. I think it might actually encourage better prelim attendance if they don’t have to sit through 25 heats of the 400 IM.
Also props to Unger for being the mastermind of the trials, you can blame him and Michael Phelps for it being the amazing event it is and swimming getting pushed to prime time.

Ole 99

Chicago 2016… makes me laugh just remembering that debacle.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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