I had a lot of conversations with coaches and swim fans leading up to the trials and the games. I read a lot of stuff, including things from Olympic Gold Medalists like Mel Stewart and really smart multi-lingual people like Chris DeSantis. I was forming opinions based on all of my inherent brilliance plus all of the information I have absorbed through those conversations and various media, and found myself in the same place I always seem to always end up when nearing the end of each Olympic cycle, thinking:
1. We are crazy for having our trials so close to the games and we need to just start being like everybody else.
2. We are watching the decline of American Olympic dominance.
...but of course, after the dust settled on swimming in London, it is pretty clear that I, and many of the other pessimists I surround myself with in the world of swimming, don't know what the hell we are talking about. This was a pretty damn good meet for the USA. It wasn't just the Missy show on the women's side, and no one is walking away feeling like if it weren't for Phelps and Lochte we would hardly have won a medal for our men.
I remember when we made the switch and placed the trials so close to the games. We subscribed to the logic that we might miss some up and coming stars. We had shot ourselves in the foot a couple of times in the past and the big brains at USA-S moved the calendar around to make sure that didn't happen any more. This time around, we might have left Katie Ledecky at home with the way she came on like a monster in the short time leading up to the trials and games, if we had moved our trials back to an earlier date. We won that gamble this time... but of course the trade off is in training. Our Olympic team swimmers come in from different coaches with different training plans and different philosophies, which has to be really hard to manage when we finally bring them all together. It is hard enough to take a college team and rest them for a conference meet while planning for your stars to also perform at their peak at NCAA championships. We want our athletes to have a lifetime peak at the games, not just a pretty good swim. Logic just tells us that getting the team together further ahead of time is better.. but then again, for a comparison to college swimming, some other nations are essentially going for the December shave and expecting to peak again in March. Neither is ideal. There were a few teams I expected more from and I have to wonder if the early trials worked against them somehow in comparison to the American plan. There were a lot of close races and we ended up with several of the best surprises, from Ledecky, to Adrian to Clary.... The list goes on. Has America stumbled on to something with the late trials? Have we just figured out the best way to make it work?
On the second point, regarding American dominance, the fact is, our team showed this time around that even at the highest level, the team who is the most "on" can put on the best show. The 100 free could have very easily gone another way at the finish, as could several of the other close races across the meet program. At the beginning of the meet I did worry a little. Phelps' 400 IM and the men's 400 Free Relay are the kind of things that can deflate a team, but as the meet went on our men and women just seemed to get more "with it." Hansen's breaststroke medal was one of my favorite surprises of the meet, but didn't make me feel that we dominated the event obviously, so then came the 100 back and not only did Grevers win but Thoman took silver. Sure we were shut out of some events, but our successes were spread out amongst the entire team, and that speaks to tremendous depth.
Am I ready to say we are dominant after London? Yes and no... We were the best team there, but several of our brightest moments could very easily have gone the way of the 400 Free Relay. There is a level of parity in swimming that has been steadily building for years and more and more we will see world class swimming events going to the individuals who are the most ready that day. We will see more world-leading seeds out-touched in the finals, and rankings will mean less and less as the field gets tighter. This is exciting and scary. Luckily, it seems that there are a good group of people out there who are a hell of a lot smarter than me making it work so we can have our best day on the right day. The USA was on their game in London and I might walk into Rio with a new mindset because of it.
Great job Team USA.