Why 2nd-Placers Aren’t Officially U.S. Olympians Yet (But Why They Will Be)

2021 U.S. OLYMPIC SWIMMING TRIALS

Through three days of U.S. Olympic Trials, there’s been one common question coming up again and again.

Why aren’t second-place finishers being officially announced as Olympic team members?

Team USA’s Olympic selection procedures boil down to a simple mathematics that most swim fans are familiar with – the top 2 finishers at Olympic Trials in each event, plus the top 6 in the 100 and 200 frees, make the Olympic team.

But the actual selection procedures are just a bit more complex than that. We’ll try to answer questions by running through them below. But the upshot of this entire story can be summed up in two bullet points:

  • Second-place finishers aren’t guaranteed to be named to the U.S. Olympic team
  • The odds are extremely high that all second-place finishers will be added to the team as the week goes on

Selection Procedures

The Olympic team can have a maximum of 26 men and 26 women. That’s not a USA Swimming limitation – that’s the FINA rule governing every Olympic swimming team in the world. No team can have more than 26 men or 26 women on their pool swimming roster.

The women’s and men’s Olympic rosters are compiled separately – so if the men’s side runs up against the 26-person cap, they can’t ‘borrow’ roster spots from the women’s side or vice versa. Swimmers are added to the U.S. Olympic roster in these priorities until the roster cap is hit:

  1. Top 4 in 100/200 frees, Winner of all other events
  2. 2nd-place finisher in all events (besides 100/200 free)
  3. 5th-place finisher in 100/200 free
  4. 6th-place finisher in 100/200 free

Priority 1 could comprise up to 20 swimmers. Priority 2 could include up to 12 more swimmers. Priority 3 could be up to 2 swimmers, and Priority 4 could also be up to 2 swimmers. That’s a total of 36 swimmers across the four priorities. Since the roster is capped at 26, if every single qualifying spot went to a different swimmer, 10 of those 36 would not make the Olympic team.

But that’s never the case. When a swimmer qualifies in multiple events, that starts opening the door for the lower-priority qualifiers to get in. For example, Katie Ledecky should account for 4 of the 20 spots in priority 1 on the women’s side, because she’s likely to win the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 frees.

When an already-qualified swimmer qualifies in an extra event, the lower-priority qualifiers get that much closer to being officially selected. 6 ‘extra’ events for already-qualified swimmers on the women’s side means all Priority 2 swimmers are locked into the Olympic team. 8 ‘extra’ events would allow the Priority 3 swimmers onto the team. And 10 ‘extra’ events means all four priorities will make the team.

We should also point out that this process is well-defined in USA Swimming’s selection procedures document, and the process does not leave a lot of discretion for the federation. Some have speculated that the team might choose to leave 5th- and 6th-place finishers home to allow someone like Caeleb Dressel or Simone Manuel to fill out the relays – but that is not an option, selection-wise. Those two could still swim the relays at the Olympics, but they wouldn’t bump anybody off the team who rightfully qualified through these selection procedures. If a 5th- or 6th-place finisher is not selected to the Olympic team, it’ll be because the team ran up against the 26-person roster cap, not because USA Swimming made a judgment call.

If the team were to run up against the cap, the tiebreaker is world ranking. The swimmer with the highest world ranking in their event (with all times from finals of U.S. Olympic Trials included) will be selected first among their priority group. So a 100 freestyler ranked 10th in the world would be selected before a 200 freestyler ranked 20th, if both finished 5th at Olympic Trials.

*The other wrinkle is that, by FINA rules, if a country enters two swimmers in one event, both have to be under the FINA “A” cut. That’s rarely an issue with the U.S., though it was a concern in the men’s 400 free. With Jake Mitchell hitting the A cut in a time trial last night, we wouldn’t expect to see any more issues with FINA cuts for the remainder of the meet.

Why Second-Placers (and The Top 6 Relay Options) Shouldn’t be Worried

We know, that’s a little confusing. But that’s what SwimSwam is here for – we’ll be tracking the details of those selection procedures to give you a big-picture outlook each night.

The big-picture outlook as of right now is that the U.S. has never really struggled to get enough multi-event qualifiers to bring all four priorities. This year should be no exception.

We’ve already got one multi-event qualifier on the men’s side: Kieran Smith is in priority 1 in both the 200 free and 400 free. Here’s a quick list of all the likely and potential doubles we see coming in the next few days:

Likely Olympic Multi-Event Qualifiers

Women:

Men:

That’s 8 ‘extra’ events among those five women, which would be enough to add all 2nd-place finishers and the 5th-place 100/200 free finishers. That’s 6 likely ‘extra’ events among the five men, which would allow all 2nd-place finishers to be added.

Other Potential Olympic Multi-Event Qualifiers

Women:

  • Lilly King: 100 breast, 200 breast
  • Rhyan White: 100 back, 200 back
  • Claire Curzan: 100 fly, 100 free, 50 free
  • Torri Huske: 100 fly, 100 free, 50 free, 200 IM

Men:

  • Michael Andrew: 100 breast, 50 free, 100 fly, 200 IM
  • Zach Apple: 4×200 free relay, 4×100 free relay
  • Andrew Wilson: 100 breast, 200 breast
  • Bobby Finke: 800 free, 1500 free

These lists are far from exhaustive, and there are plenty more opportunities for multi-event qualifiers – especially among the 100 and 200 free types filling out the relay spots.

It’s harder to come up with a reasonable timeline where all four priorities don’t make the meet. Any of the four swimmers in the second list could potentially miss the team in one of those events, but they would all have to miss the team in at least one of those events, and the swimmers who pass them would also have to be single-event Olympians for the second-place finishers in any event to be in any real jeopardy.

While making the Olympic team in just one event is hard enough, and two events is a massive accomplishment, we also do tend to see lots of Olympic doubles for an obvious reason: if you’re swimming well enough early in the meet to make one event, you’re probably swimming well enough to have a fighting chance in at least one more event.

Looking at things chronologically, we’d expect to get a lot more clarity on the women’s side tonight – the 200 free creates lots of opportunities for doubles. We might see Ledecky add two ‘extra’ events tonight alone, with the 200 free and 1500 free finals. Madden could add the 200 free.

The men’s side, we’ll probably see our big flood of doubles on Thursday night, with the 100 free and two other finals. We probably won’t see second-place finishers officially locked in until Friday or later, but we’ll know by tomorrow night if things still look good for their eventual selection.

For those biting their nails and sweating out what they assumed was a locked-and-loaded Olympic roster spot for themselves, their child, or their favorite swimmer, you can rest easy and root for more multi-event qualifiers from the lists above. As one college coach we spoke to put it, “if you’re a bubble guy, you’re now Michael Andrew‘s biggest fan.”

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Swimlikefishdrinklikefish
1 month ago

For the men the 800 and 1500 will certainly be a large determiner. If they double up on those two should create a lot of room

Wetness
Reply to  Swimlikefishdrinklikefish
1 month ago

Can’t we just admit as Americans that we don’t like losing and Ricky Bobby reminded us that 2nd is the first loser. So I would hope that the USOC saves us embarrassment as a country and only sends winners to Tokyo. No need for those “first losers”

Sorry for replying to your post and not referencing it in the least bit, I just wanted to make sure my comment was at the top of the message board. Thank you for your support.

GATOR CHOMP 🐊
1 month ago

MA in 100 fly and 2IM also

VFL
1 month ago

And if the situation did arise, the 2nd place finishers would be prioritized based on world rankings? So Jacoby being second in the world does essentially guarantee her a spot?

I know it’s likely a non-issue, just curious. It would be fun to see the rankings of the #2 swimmers as the meet goes along.

SwimFan49
1 month ago

Surprised Lilly King is not considered a “likely” multi-event qualifier in this article.

SUNY Cal
1 month ago

So, you think 6th place freestyle winners will also qualify?

Shaheen
1 month ago

Where does Jake Mitchell’s Priority fall in this with the way he qualified? Is he grouped in with the second-place finishers or put at the end because his A cut came outside of the trials final?

Rob
Reply to  Shaheen
1 month ago

Seems like Mitchell would be group 2, 2nd place finisher. Yes, his qualifying time came in a different swim, which is important in that he beat the oqt during the time period, but finishing 2nd in the trials final puts Mitchell in group 2.

Thank you Jared for an excellent and detailed article today.

Last edited 1 month ago by Rob
Wahooswimfan
Reply to  Jared Anderson
1 month ago

But if less than all the second place swimmers get to go, the criteria say you only substitute their time in the finals for world rank, so he might have to live with his finals time ranking, not his time trial ranking.

atohitotsu
Reply to  Wahooswimfan
1 month ago

That’s an interesting point. If they allow him to use his time trial time, then all the other 2nd/5th/6th guys would ask for clean water time trials to improve their world ranking.

DCSwim
1 month ago

Definitely a more precarious situation this trials when you don’t have a guys like Phelps and Lochte taking up a lot of spots

Xman
Reply to  Jared Anderson
1 month ago

Idk man I think MA doing 100 back semi then final may have burned him for the IM and fly.

AvidSwimFan
Reply to  Jared Anderson
1 month ago

The other big question is the addition of 2 more events compared to last Olympics. With the women, we have KL for at least one spot, but a different person could get the second spot making priority 4 spots dicey.

Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

Very possible we could see 4 unique breaststroke qualifiers for each gender, and fortunately it appears we’d still be under the roster cap of 26 on each side.

Thank goodness for consistency among at least a few elite US swimmers in each Olympiad, and so many freestylers doubling as 100/200 specialists.

Last edited 1 month ago by Wave 1.5 Qualifier
Smith-King-Huske-Manuel
Reply to  Wave 1.5 Qualifier
1 month ago

That’s not the case on the women’s side with regard to freestylers doubling as 100 FR/200 FR specialists:

Brown – nope
Comerford – nope
Curzan – nope
Huske – nope
Manuel – nope
Smoliga – nope
Weitzeil – nope

It is more likely on the women’s side that the top two 50 meter freestylers come from the top four 100 meter freestylers.

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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