On December 7, Swimming Canada announced a number of radical changes to the format of its upcoming Olympic Trials meet, including having a maximum of 20 swimmers per event and each race being contested as a timed final.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, various restrictions will be needed in order to successfully run trials meets around the globe in the lead-up to the 2021 Olympic Games. However, several questions arose from Swimming Canada’s decision, including why the meet wasn’t pushed back a few months (closer to the date of U.S. Trials in June), why there would be only 20 swimmers per event, and why the meet will be timed finals.
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director since 2013, addressed the new format with SwimSwam, citing strict national restrictions and safety as the driving forces behind the changes we’ll see at next year’s Olympic Trials.
Atkinson says that Swimming Canada has been working on “a multitude” of possible scenarios for the meet since the summer, ranging everywhere from a normal trials to having only 10 swimmers in each event. He says that the organization quickly recognized that despite significant progress being made in terms of the development and eventual distribution of the COVID-19 vaccination, this still likely won’t significantly affect how we live through the end of the third quarter of 2021.
“The situation – whether the event is conducted at any point in April, May or June 2021 – will be very similar to how things are now, and as such we must plan for the a very restricted trials that we are going to conduct from April 7-11, 2021 in Toronto,” Atkinson said. “To do other than this would not be addressing the reality of our current situation.
“The later it goes, the more time-sensitive things become and if the trials are also potentially at risk in June you simply run out of time and the exceptional circumstances clause of the nomination criteria would come into play.”
Atkinson also emphasized the importance of coming up with a concrete date for the competition as soon as possible to allow athletes and coaches adequate time to plan and prepare.
“It was also very important to make decisions in a timely manner (before the end of December) so that all teams considering their attendance both for the pool and open water trials know the situation and did not make bookings that needed to be amended,” he said.
Swimming Canada considered both a bubble format, where all athletes, coaches, officials, support staff, etc., would be confined to a specific area throughout the duration of the meet, and a “physically distanced” format.
The bubble option, though successfully implemented across a variety of other sports and the 2020 International Swimming League season in Hungary, proved far too expensive and complicated to execute for what would likely be in excess of 800 swimmers and 1,300 people total.
“Numbers involved would be cost prohibitive for a bubble scenario and the number of hotel accommodations close to the pool offering food service is an issue, the number of times coming into and out of the pool a day increases contacts, and as such to maintain this bubble for pre-meet training and through the competition is simply not a viable option and it would be extremely complex.”
Knocking the number of athletes invited to the competition down to 20 per event will result in approximately 240 Olympic program swimmers in attendance. Along with limiting numbers, Atkinson also cited the fact that no swimmers ranked outside of the top-20 had made the 2012 Olympic team, 2016 Olympic team, or 2019 World Championship team in how they landed on the number 20.
Along with the Olympic swimmers, 40 Paralympic program athletes and additional coaches, staff and officials, Atkinson estimates the number of people attending will be in the vicinity of 450.
While that’s a much more manageable number than 1,300, the meet will still be contested much differently than a normal competition, which leads us to the decision for timed finals.
Atkinson says there will be 40 athletes permitted inside the pool area at a time, along with coaches etc., and events will run out over the course of the day, with adequate warm-up and warm-down time in between.
“A day at the trials will generally start at around 10 a.m. for the first warm-up session, and conclude after swim downs for the final races of the day between 5:30 and 8 p.m,” he said. “While this sounds like long day, it is what is possible, and how long it will take with warm-up and swim-down time, cleaning between each event, with 40 athletes at a time in the building, plus support staff, coaches, officials and volunteers.”
By following all of these protocols, having a traditional prelims/finals format for the meet simply wasn’t feasible.
“With this level of detail and what we have to do and how we need to run a meet it is clear a finals session added into the day would simply not fit, and one long session per day is the outcome.”
While it’s easy to look at this situation as a negative, and how it could put some of Canada’s top swimmers at a disadvantage without having that prelim swim that they’re so used to, Atkinson stresses that it will ultimately be a positive.
It will force athletes to perform on the day, and have every one of their performances be “do or die” like they will at the Olympic Games, where there’s no room for a relatively slow prelim swim.
“Critically we can simulate an environment to ‘perform on demand’ and that is what we need our coaches and athletes to focus on now,” Atkinson said. “This performance on demand is entirely possible. Make every swim at the trials count, no soft heats, no throwaway performances, just do the job in an environment that will make each and every swim have as much importance as every swim at the Games will have.
“Every race will matter and that is a scenario that will give our team an edge going into the Games. This will prepare each athlete (and their coaches) for the Games and be a great advantage for the team.”
While admitting that the fact there is only one swim to get the job done was “scary”, she also added that since those 2019 Worlds, the majority of the meets she’s raced in have been timed finals, including the ISL season and the FINA Champions Series. So while it’s not a common setup for a Trials, it is something that athletes have been getting more used to recently.
Atkinson added that Swimming Canada anticipates running the two timed final heats as ‘A’ and ‘B’ finals, for lack of a better term, with the top-10 ranked swimmers all swimming together in the second heat.
Atkinson also said that there has been constant communication between Swimming Canada and its athletes and coaches on the format changes, along with consultations from organizations such as the Canadian Olympic Committee, the Canadian Paralympic Committee and Own the Podium.
“Of course, this is not how we envisaged running an Olympic and Paralympic Trials, however it is what is necessary to conduct the event in April or in any month before the Games,” he said. “Many opinions on how this should be done will be in play and this of course is not straightforward. We have to plan for Canada knowing what we can do, what will be permitted and what needs to happen outside of the pool to allow for a successful trials.
“We do not take the decisions announced lightly. We do strive to ensure all in swimming are aware of the decisions and why we are taking them, and to give our athletes time to make plans based on the decisions. While some of the decisions may not be popular, we determined this was the best alternative after a great deal of work went into considering multiple scenarios and to let people know.”