The world of swimming: This assessment may not be understandable to a non-American audience. You see, it is difficult to understand from afar or without a true understanding of what the United States possesses in the pool.
As this column is being written, the fourth day of the Olympic trials at the CHI Health Centre in Omaha, Nebrat, begins. Agony and ecstasy have already appeared on deck, where conflicting emotions often overlap. From athletes to coaches to family members, there were plenty of smiles and frowning faces.
The tears that Regan Smith shed after winning the 100m backstroke and receiving her first Olympic invitation were a combination of joy and relief. Conversely, when Kelsey Dahlia walked the same deck after placing fourth in the 100m butterfly, her tears were caused by the pain of missing out on her opportunity to return to the Olympics. Countless others, too, swung to one side or the other.
However the Olympics define the greatest athletes in sport, and however much the professionals strive for the top, they must first get there.
Qualifying to represent the United States may be considered a greater challenge than reaching the Olympic podium, such is the pressure that hovers over the pool. This view in no way suggests that there is no pressure at the Olympics. That would be laughable. On the contrary, American swimmers must successfully overcome the unprecedented challenges of the world just to earn a place on Team USA.
“In the future I’m just happy to take some of the pressure off and just enjoy the experience, enjoy being here, enjoy having more practice in swims against great girls,” Smith said after her 100 backstroke victory at the US qualifiers. “I think the next couple of days will be a lot of fun and not stressful like the last few days.”
Think about that quote. Smith is a world record holder, world champion and one of the most gifted female athletes in the sport. Nevertheless, she admitted to feeling the pressure of the trials and exhaled with great relief after finishing the job. The Stanford recruit’s honesty is refreshing and proves that no one is immune to the pressure that trialling can put on a person.
Here and there in other countries there are competitions with impressive depth, such as Australia with its trio of stars under 3:44 in the 400 freestyle. In the United States, however, there are very few events in which there are not a few contenders for the Olympic final. And since only two athletes are selected for each event, medal contenders regularly find themselves locked out and forced to watch the Games on television – if, of course, they can stand it.
Until 1980, countries were allocated three places in each Olympic event, but from 1984 this rule was changed to two per country. This rule, for the record, will not go anywhere in the future. After this change, the room for manoeuvre at US qualifiers was severely restricted and the pressure on the US team increased exponentially.
If there is a silver lining to this situation, it is the undeniable fact that when athletes in the Stars and Stripes get to the Olympics, they become hardened warriors. Although they have to deal with formidable international opponents, they have been tested and tend to feel more comfortable than they did during the trials. They have little concern about their surroundings. They are simply ready to compete.
The future Olympics in the USA will be no different from the last one or the one before it. There will be the same amount of stories about feelings and heartstrings. An equal share of smiles and tears. For better or worse, this is the hallmark of a competition that is the most demanding in the world.