OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Forty-somethings and teen phenoms.
Records and rivalries.
Comebacks and farewells.
While Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are getting much of the attention, there’s no shortage of compelling stories heading into the U.S. Olympic swimming trials, which begin Monday at a temporary pool in America’s heartland.
“This is not a swim meet anymore,” said Chuck Wielgus, the executive director of USA Swimming. “This is a major sporting spectacle.”
With eight straight nights of primetime television coverage from the 13,200-seat CenturyLink Center Omaha, where pyrotechnics and high-tech videoboards are as much a part of the show as the pool, swimming will solidify its position as one of the glamour sports heading into London. Much of that attention can be attributed to Phelps, who won a record eight golds medals in Beijing and is the winningest Olympian ever with a total of 14 golds.
“His importance to the sport is immeasurable,” said Gregg Troy, head coach of the men’s team.
Phelps made more news Sunday, passing on a chance to scratch from the 400-meter individual medley, a grueling event he dropped after Beijing but brought back over the past year. That could set up a showdown with Lochte on the very first night of what Phelps says will be his final Olympic trials. He plans to retire after the London Games.
“We would like to see what he can do in the event,” Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, said in a text message to The Associated Press. “He’s done a few decent ones in season, so we are taking a shot and seeing how it goes.”
But the Americans have plenty of star power beyond Phelps and Lochte, who won five golds at last year’s world championships — including a sweep of both head-to-head races with Phelps.
Start with Natalie Coughlin, who’s two medals away from becoming this country’s most decorated female Olympic swimmer. Move on to Missy Franklin, just 17 years old but already touted as the sport’s next big star. Savor the return of 40-year-old Janet Evans, now a mom with two kids attempting an improbable comeback after a decade-and-a-half retirement. Throw in Dara Torres, going for her sixth Olympic team at age 45.
“I’m so excited to be here,” Franklin said Sunday. “I feel ready. I feel so prepared. I just want to get started.”
She’s not the only one. Brendan Hansen, one of America’s greatest breaststrokers, called it a career after disappointing at the last two Olympics. But the tug of the water was just too strong, so the 30-year-old is back to try again for a more fitting capper to his career.
“My main purpose and goal for coming back was to make the Olympic team and go to the Olympics and show the world and my country what I can do,” Hansen said. “The two Olympics I was in, I didn’t do that.”
Jessica Hardy is another swimmer with something to prove. She qualified for the Olympic team four years ago in Omaha, but had to drop out after she failed a doping test. She faced a two-year suspension and possible banishment from the London Games, but an arbitration panel ruled the positive result wasn’t her fault. Her suspension was cut in half and she was cleared to swim in the Olympics if she makes the team.
“Obviously, I have a lot of traumatic feelings about being back. I’m working through those and trying to calm down,” said Hardy, a world-record holder in the breaststroke. “I know a lot of people have strong opinions about me and my career. But really, I just swim for myself. I have high goals for myself and if I get close to those, I’ll be happy.
One of the most intriguing figures at the trials is Anthony Ervin, who won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, then mysteriously walked away from the sport before the next games in Athens. He sold off his gold medal to raise money for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, lost the relay silver he won in Australia, and generally just roamed around the country, working odd jobs, finishing college and searching for a deeper meaning to life.
Then, out of nowhere, he returned to the deck last year. Now 31, he’s already put up times that stamp him as one of the top contenders in the 50 free, a chaotic dash from one end of the pool to the other.
“It’s been quite a journey,” Ervin said. “However the dice fall, it’s been great. I’m glad I’ve been able to come back. There was never any intention to return to what I was.”
Franklin is just getting started on her journey. She’s still very much a kid, which is obvious from her excessive use of the word “awesome” and boundless enthusiasm for, well, just about everything.
“I can’t wait to shave!” she proclaimed.
But Franklin, who just finished her junior year of high school, is a grown-up in the water. She won three golds and five medals overall at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai, establishing herself as America’s top female hope.
Of course, Coughlin might have something to say about that. She won 11 medals over the last two Olympics, leaving her one shy of Jenny Thompson’s career record, and is still a formidable force in a wide range of strokes as she approaches her 30th birthday. She’s not ready for a changing of the guard just yet, even though there are teenagers coming at her from all directions.
Franklin and 18-year-old Rachel Bootsma will challenge Coughlin in the 100 backstroke, an event the veteran won at the last two Olympics. Franklin also will try to knock off Coughlin in another of her signature events, the 100 free. Nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Beisel is a serious challenger in the 200 individual medley.
“I don’t think Natalie looks at it like she’s going head-to-head with Missy or anybody else,” said Teri McKeever, who is both Coughlin’s coach and head coach of the U.S. women’s team. “She’s going head-to-head with Natalie. That’s what the challenge is for the next eight days, for her be at her best and work on where she is now compared to 2008 or 2004. She and I have absolutely no control over what Missy or anybody else does. I don’t think she spends too much time thinking about that.”