OMAHA, Neb. — Katie Ledecky, whose own extraordinary standards are her sternest competition, is a one-woman metaphor for American swimming at the upcoming Rio Games.
Just as Ledecky is expected to win every time she dives in, at multiple freestyle distances, supremacy is assumed of the U.S. Olympic team. And that dominance has differed only by degree over the long haul. U.S. swimmers collected a combined 40 of the 100 gold medals available in Athens, Beijing and London, and 90 medals overall. Australia is the only nation within shouting distance, with 45 overall.
The thermostat gets turned up another notch after the crucible of the Olympic trials. An audience that tunes in every four years is conditioned by success, spoiled by a long, unbroken string of personable stars.
Sprinters Nathan Adrian (50 and 100 freestyle, and 400 free relay) and Dana Vollmer (100 fly and 400 free relay) will return for their third and fourth Summer Games, respectively. At age 35, Anthony Ervin sent statisticians scrambling by making the cut in the 4×100 freestyle relay and the 50 free — 16 years after he medaled in both in Sydney.
Inevitably, the trials culled senior leadership, as well. Missing from the Rio roster are 2012 backstroke gold medalists Matt Grevers (100 meter) and Tyler Clary (200 meter), who both retired after their final swims fell short. Veteran sprinter Jessica Hardy ended her competitive career, and iconic 12-time medalist Natalie Coughlin put hers on hold.
An eclectic group of rookies elbowed through the crowd to take their places, and they didn’t come out of nowhere. Hardy was a formal mentor to several swimmers on the national junior team who are now Rio-bound, including Leah Smith (400 and 800 freestyle, and 800 free relay) and Olivia Smoliga (100 backstroke).
“It was a really hard team to make,” Hardy said. “That talent came to fruition a lot sooner than I expected. It’s going to be cool to see.”
Stanford graduate Maya DiRado, dynamic in the pool and possessed of a Zen aura outside it, won both individual medley events and the 200 backstroke to head into what she insists will be her first and last Olympics at age 23. On the other end of the emotive spectrum, DiRado’s 20-year-old Stanford teammate Simone Manuel wept with joy on and off for 40 minutes after she qualified for the 100 freestyle.
“She has had the Olympics on such a pedestal, and at 19 years old you can build that up to something that maybe you don’t have the emotional maturity to handle in the moment of racing,” said Stanford head coach Greg Meehan, who was named to the Olympic women’s team staff Sunday. Now that the pressure’s off, I’m really excited to see her swim with some freedom.”
The men tasked with continuing the much-decorated U.S. tradition in backstroke include David Plummer, owner of the best 100-meter time in the world this year, a father of two with salt-and-pepper hair who at 30 is the oldest male swimmer to make an Olympic debut in nearly 100 years. Josh Prenot, part of a sizeable University of California contingent, blazed to the second-fastest 200 breaststroke of all time (2:07.17) in the trials final.
Yet roughly half of the winning times in Omaha lagged behind those of four years ago. Bowman and Marsh had little explanation other than the obvious — the scope and smothering pressure of the meet, which can be just as hard on seasoned swimmers as green ones.
“The times I just went aren’t going to cut it in Rio, and I’ve gotta figure that out,” said Cal’s Tom Shields, who qualified for the 100-meter butterfly behind Phelps in a final that was dramatic but not particularly fast. “I’m very aware of that, and I’m sure Michael is, too.”
As is their practice, neither Phelps nor Bowman offered any specifics on exactly what tweaks they’ll make in the training period between now and Rio — the time swimmers refer to as a double taper. But Phelps, like all of his teammates, needs to step down briefly from the emotional and physical summit of trials before he can eye a higher destination.
Marsh said he can divide the team into those who were relieved to make it and those who felt pure joy. “Relief is probably easier to get ready,” he said.
Added Bowman: “One of the things that we have always done well, better than anyone else, is improve from the trials to the Games, and I’m confident we’re going to do that again.”