US Olympic Trials Lore

Chuck Warner, the author, is a coach and an old friend. Thoughtful and passionate about the sport, he has studied the details behind what it takes to achieve swimming excellence.


Going to Olympic Trials? Someday? Going to watch next week in Omaha or on TV? Going to watch interviews on SwimSwam? There are some Legendary experiences that others have had that you might want to learn from.

In 2012 earning a spot on the greatest Olympic Swim Team on earth – Team USA – is as an objective a process as there is in sports. Turn the clock off at the right time when you finish and you’re on the team. Unless it’s a relay, if you’re 1-hundredth slower than two others you’re not.

Do you remember Hayley McGregory in 2008? She set an American Record in the 100-meter backstroke in the preliminaries but finished third in the finals to miss the team. Some people say, “First is first and second is last: Except at the Olympic Trials.” In 1972, Kurt Krumpholtz set the world record in the preliminaries of the 400-meter freestyle. When the finals were completed he still held the world record. But he didn’t finish in the top three (the rules of the day allowed three per event) to make the team.

When a coach, swimmer, or parent experiences such a disappointment it is difficult. There was a time when such cut and dry selection was not in place. Here is the amazing story of Dave Johnson in 1968…if you can believe it…

Dave Johnson is now a doctor, but in the spring of 1968 he was an aspiring swimmer and student at Yale University. He chose Yale because in those days Yale painted your name on the lobby wall if you were on a USA National Team. Under the heading Olympics there were a lot of names. He had been a part of American record setting relays at Yale with the world’s most famous swimmer of the day Don Schollander, but had yet to qualify to swim in the Olympic Trials.

The Trials were at the end of August in 1968 in Long Beach, California. His pre-med program at Yale kept him extremely busy that spring. Including his time spent in labs, he was spending 33 hours a week in his classes and hardly got in the pool at all. Adding to his interruption in training, he went home to Philadelphia in May, fell off his bike and broke his arm.

His new coach in Philly, Don Sonia, wrapped his arm in a plastic bag and made him kick the entire practice. In a matter of days his ankles developed tendonitis. So instead Dave trained by doing step ups on a bench progressively working 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, 5 minutes, etc.  That was his workout for about six weeks.

The cast on his arm came off in mid-June and he started to swim. His meets were awful and by the time the early August Nationals arrived he was still asking the officials if he could push off in his races instead of dive in to avoid the pain in his elbow when he hit the water. Dave adjusted his dive by grabbing his arm on the entry and managed to qualify for the Trials in the 200-meter butterfly and 400 individual medley.

By the end of August, at the Trials, he was swimming much better. But he failed to make it into the top three finishers in either of his events and therefore thought he had not qualified for the 38-member Olympic Team. He joined his family at their hotel skipping the last day of Trials.

Unbeknown to Dave Johnson there were so many swimmers that made the team in two or three events that when all the spots were filled for the individual and relay events it totaled 37 spots. In those days there was not World Performance charts to select the final swimmer. So the meet administrators started flipping coins to select one of the swimmers that had scored 10 points at the Trials. If your name came up in the coin flip you would be on the team.

Bobbi Dawson, who was the Yale Swimming secretary, was in the room when the coin flipping started. She asked, “Do you have Dave Johnson in the group? I think he had 10 points.” Sure enough Dave did and they added him in to the coin flip. Dave won.

On the last night of the Trials they started introducing the Olympic Team but Dave Johnson was no where to be found. Yale teammate Mike Cadden heard Dave’s name announced from the parking lot, as he was about to leave the Trials. He went back into the pool area and was told that, “Yes, Dave Johnson made the Olympic Team, but unless we hear from him in the next few minutes we will have to move on to pick the next swimmer.” Mike Cadden hurried to a pay phone. He knew Dave went with his family to one of the Disneyland hotels, but where? Without the cell phone invention in those days, he started feeding the pay phone quarters for the long distance call…but time was running out. He called the largest hotel near Disneyland. Mike asked, “Is there a Johnson family there?” The hotel operator said, “Yes, 18 of them.” Legend has it, Mike was down to his last quarter. He called a room. With incredibly good luck, Dave Johnson’s father answered the phone! He threw Dave in the car, they hurried back to Long Beach and he was on the 1968 Olympic Team.

Dave did more than just ‘get on the team.’ We will explore the Legend of what happened for Dave Johnson with six more weeks of training for the Mexico Olympics…next week in Lessons From Legends.

Legendary Mulling’s:

…would you rather make the Olympic team by a coin flip or by objective results?

…you never know: At the 2000 Olympic Trials Kim Black finished 19th in the preliminaries of the 200-freestyle, failing to qualify for the newly introduced semi-final system of 16 swimmers that advanced to the next round. But THREE swimmers that finished higher than she did scratched to save themselves for another race. In the semis Kim finished eighth advancing to the finals. In the finals she finished sixth making the Olympic Team. At the Sydney Olympics Kim Black won a gold medal on the 800-meter freestyle relay…it’s never over till it’s over…

Chuck Warner has been a swimming coach for more than forty years. His teams have won seven national Y team championships, been runners-up for the NCAA Division II championship three times, been a USA National Team coach three times and Big East Conference coach of the year four times. Chuck has authored two books: “Four Champions, One Gold Medal” about the training and race for the 1500 meter gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. “…And Then They Won Gold: Stepping Stones To Swimming Excellence – Volume I” is due out now. It is eight short stories of some of the greatest male swimmers in history. The second volume devoted to women’s swimmers is due out next year. He is the founder, President and CEO of Arete Aquatic Services and owner of the ARETE Swim Camp.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON ORDERING“…And Then They Won Gold” go and access “Books/Media.”

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Hayley set a world record in prelims. Ouch.

Thanks for the correction Ben! And do you remember her results in 2004?


I do third in both 1 and two back sounds familiar, probably cause she did the same thing in 2008 …that would be absolutely terrible


I’m usually not a stickler for grammar, but I think it’s “earning a spot on the greatest Olympic Swim Team on earth – Team USA – is as objective a process as there is in sports”, not “is as an objective”.

Great story about Dave Johnson. It’s nice to have some good stories for every bad one; as Joe mentioned McGregory finished third in the 100 and 200 back two OT’s in a row, while at some point around trials in ’08 breaking the WR in the 50 and 100 back.


These stories are so interesting,

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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