U.S. swimming trials bring some clarity for athletes after a year of uncertainty

Katie Ledecky competes in the women's 1,500-meter freestyle final at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Mission Viejo.
Katie Ledecky competes in the women’s 1,500-meter freestyle final at the TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Mission Viejo in April. Ledecky doesn’t see herself as the face of USA Swimming heading into the Tokyo Olympics.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Caeleb Dressel arrived at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials nine years ago as an awestruck, gangly teenager who was the youngest male competitor at the pressure-packed event.

Now his larger-than-life picture covers the front of the CHI Health Center alongside giant pictures of fellow standouts Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel.

Dressel, the 24-year-old sprint sensation from Florida who owns a handful of world records, has joined them as one of the faces of U.S. swimming. Not that he’d ever admit it.


“It’s just weird for me because I still feel like that 15-year-old sitting up in the nosebleed seats,” Dressel said.

The path to the eight-day trials that start Sunday after a yearlong pandemic delay hasn’t been easy for Dressel or any other competitor. Carefully-calibrated routines were blown apart. Swimmers scrounged for space to train, settling for backyard pools, socially distanced workouts or, in the case of Lilly King, the defending Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter breaststroke, an Indiana pond.

But they didn’t know if they’d actually get the opportunity to compete for spots at next month’s Tokyo Games as the pandemic continues to roil the world.

“Parts of the road to Tokyo have been bumpy, smooth, missing, downhill, uphill, and winding but every part worth it,” Dressel wrote on Instagram a few days ago.

In many ways, swimming is the straightforward part of the next eight days.

“I think the kids are dying to race,” said Ray Looze, the Indiana University swimming coach who trains King and others. “Like, I hear this on deck, ‘We can’t wait for this meet to start.’ … I think there’s going to be some world records that go down because there’s been some people that have had to go through a great deal and they really, really want it bad.”

Dressel, who set three world records during a dominant performance at the International Swimming League’s Grand Final in November, will be the favorite in the 50 freestyle, 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly. And Ledecky, the five-time Olympic gold medalist who is a world-record machine, will look to dominate her usual program of the 200 freestyle, 400 freestyle, 800 freestyle and, happening for the first time at the women’s Olympic level, the 1,500 freestyle.


Caeleb Dressel competes in the men's 100-meter butterfly prelims at the TYR Pro Swim Series meet.
Caeleb Dressel competes in the men’s 100-meter butterfly prelims at the TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Mission Viejo on April 8.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

As always, Ledecky is unassuming about it all.

“I think I’m not the face of USA Swimming,” Ledecky said. “I think Simone is as well. I think Caeleb. I think of Lilly. I think of [backstroker] Ryan [Murphy]. I could just rattle off about 10 or 15 names and I think that just shows the depth we have as a team.”

But the pandemic lurks behind it all. Nothing about the event is routine. Capacity at the arena, where a temporary pool is built on top of a basketball court, is limited to 65%. With foreign fans barred from attending the Games in Japan, it’s the last time family and friends of Olympians will be able to cheer them on in person. Athletes, coaches, media and other officials are tested for COVID-19 before being issued a credential. Regular follow-up tests are required.

About 90% of the national team members have received a COVID-19 vaccine. They include King, Ledecky and Manuel. Dressel joked that he’s on “Team Moderna.” Ryan Lochte, the 12-time Olympic medalist trying to make his fifth Games at age 36, demurred when asked if he had been vaccinated.

Countdown to Tokyo Olympics
00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds

“That’s a personal question, so I’m not going to answer that,” he said.

The challenge remains to get through the trials and then the Games without COVID-19 derailing anyone’s health — or anyone’s opportunity.

“We’ve put in a lot of work. … And it would be a shame if the opportunity to see all that work pay off was deprived at the last minute, regardless of what the reason is,” said Gregg Troy, who coaches Dressel and Lochte. “But it’s a pretty big world. There’s lots of things going on. There’s certain things more important than just swimming and so we have to keep that perspective.”

Check out how to watch Americans push to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in track and field, swimming and gymnastics with all three trials scheduled for June.

June 6, 2021