The dust has settled on the US Olympic Swimming Trials, with 45 athletes named on the team. USA Swimming continue to be the benchmark for empowering their athletes and giving them a platform to perform on the big stage. There is nothing more exhilarating than competing in front of a large crowd, in a world class field of athletes. The adrenaline courses through your veins in that environment and drives you to better performances; exactly the atmosphere you want to create for your athletes.
The newly crowned American Olympic Team are now likely to be straight back to the pool for a short 2-3 week high intensity training cycle depending on their selected events, before commencing another taper period in advance of the Games. The US team are used to this ‘double-taper’ strategy. It has been the method of choice in recent years for USA Swimming and is often required throughout the collegiate swim season. Athletes are nominated to represent their respective college and university teams in conference and NCAA competitions just a few short weeks apart and, by in large, must peak for these before going onto to compete for selection to the major Championships at the US Nationals.Throughout the Olympic Trials, as is so often the case, there were surprises. An Olympic Trials event is like no other. The stakes are high, the tension is palpable and the anxiousness of the athletes is often evident. Behavioural changes occur in even the most experienced of performers.
Enter the rookies.
With a blissful ignorance, a sense of innocent naivety in their quest to become an Olympian. The beauty of Olympic sport. Jay Litherland, a Junior at University of Georgia, struck on day 1. He stormed home in the 400m Medley to snatch Silver and the second Olympic berth from the grasp of superstar Ryan Lochte. Another example was in the performances of Abbey Weitzeil, victor in the 50m & 100m Freestyle, besting seasoned USA swimming team members to qualify for her first Olympic Games.
Next up was 30-year-old father of two, David Plummer. Plummer finished in third place at the US Olympic Trials in 2012 on the 100m Backstroke in 52.98 but was denied selection due to a 52.86 effort from Nick Thoman. The odds of becoming an Olympian stand at 1 in 562,400 and Plummer was twelve milliseconds shy of the standard, yet four years later, he emerged victorious in his athletic journey with a 52.28 100m Backstroke effort and is on his way to Rio ranked world number one.
In stark contrast to the story of David Plummer, we have Matt Grevers. Olympic 100m Backstroke Champion in London in 2012, was denied his Rio ticket. His wife Annie, expecting their first child together, wrote, “he suffered, but with grace that comes from a divine place”. At 31, Grevers surely doesn’t have another Olympic cycle in his legs. It has yet to be confirmed whether Grevers will retire, but if he does, he parts with the greatest honour in our sport bestowed upon him, Olympic Champion.
The men’s 50m Freestyle promised to be an intriguing encounter between veterans of the USA Swimming Team. Nathan Adrian and 35-year-old Anthony Ervin gained their Olympic selection in 21.51 & 21.52 respectively. Ervin was crowned Olympic Champion in 2000 at the Sydney Olympic Games on 21.98 before quitting the sport and auctioning his Olympic Gold medal to raise funds for the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami victims.
There was heartbreak for Cullen Jones, the first African American World Record holder in swimming and a man who has done so much for his sport over the years. Jones learned to swim after he was rescued from a near-drowning as a five year-old, becoming a strong advocate for water safety throughout the United States ever since. Jones, understandably, cut a forlorn figure and posted a short message of thanks to his supporters after the event, stating “I’ve been advised to rule nothing out, it’s been difficult to articulate my emotions, but whatever is next, I am ready”.
A curtain was also drawn on the Olympic career of one of USA Swimming’s greatest achievers, Natalie Coughlin. It was a herculean task for Coughlin to make a fourth Olympiad. She finished in 8th position in the 100m Backstroke & failed to make the 100m Freestyle final. Coughlin’s contribution to USA and World swimming is most definitely understated. She hosts an unprecedented record of 12 swims in Olympic competition, with 12 medals. In a post swim press conference, Coughlin stated definitively that she would continue to be heavily involved in the swimming community.
Athletes are perceived to be fitter, stronger and psychologically more resilient than your ‘Average Joe’ and retirement can be a troubling transition. Most people that go for a change in occupation do so because they are void of passion for their working responsibilities. Athletes often retire from a sport they very much love, or at least feel a deep attachment to; a duty. The athlete can choose to severe competitive ties with immediate effect, or continue to compete but fall down the pecking order until the word ‘retirement’ no longer holds the same value. Either choice can elicit a sense of isolation and loss.
In recent years, we have seen an exponential rise in cases of depression triggered by athletic retirement. The social, economic and lifestyle transitions through retirement do not discriminate and the list of affected sport stars is endless. More must be done by sporting organisations and governing bodies to support the athletes that have given so much to their sport.
This dark side to athletic retirement is most definitely not the case for reigning Olympic 200m Backstroke Champion and recent retiree, Tyler Clary, who will not defend his 200m Backstroke title in Rio de Janeiro. For those of you that don’t know Tyler, he is a man of many talents and interests, working closely with six time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson to pursue a career as a professional race car driver as well as developing self-sustainable greenhouses. Quite a contrast!
In summary, it was more than an eventful week in Omaha. The lengthy reigns for a handful of extraordinary athletes mentioned in this article have come to a tearful end and the emergence of youthful and exuberant Olympic rookies aim to take the mantle. The Olympic Games in Rio promises to be a mouth-watering contest.