By Philip Hersh | June 25, 2016, 6:57 p.m. (ET)
A view of the pool and arena at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming at CenturyLink Center on June 28, 2012 in Omaha, Neb.


OMAHA, Neb. – When USA Swimming representatives came here in 2005 to assess the city’s bid to host the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming, they noticed that civic organizations had created a logo with a letter and a punctuation mark to encourage the feeling this city was an exciting place.

It was “O!”

When those USA Swimming officials spoke to the country’s elite coaches after awarding that meet to Omaha, Nebraska, they got a reaction that effectively changed the punctuation.

The way the coaches saw the choice was “O?” as in “Huh? Where? What?” After all, Omaha had no historic links to swimming, and few athletes from the area ever had reached the sport’s elite. 

More than a decade later, as a third straight Omaha Olympic Trials begins Sunday, the question mark is gone, and the exclamation points have multiplied exponentially.

Conor Dwyer, about to swim in his third Omaha trials, was a 19-year-old along for the ride here in 2008, when he had no chance to make the team. What he saw left him slack-jawed. 

“You realize how big of a spectacle swimming can be,” said Dwyer, a 2012 Olympic relay gold medalist. “When I came in 2008, I thought of it like the Super Bowl of swimming. I didn’t know that had existed until I came here.” 

Omaha has made the meet a three-ring spectacle, literally adding smoke and mirrors – and other pizzazz, including deck-side flames that once went off during a race, making the swimmers feel the burn (with no harm) in a different way, and script written in cascading “waterfalls” of light. It has given a rock concert vibe to an event that until 2008 previously felt like any other swimming competition.

“You go to a lot of swim meets where it just seems like heat after heat of swimming,” said Dana Vollmer, 2012 Olympic champion in the 100-meter butterfly, also competing in her third Omaha trials.

“To get to come to (a meet) that’s just cool to be at…it makes the people really excited to watch and the athletes really excited to be here.”

The third time will also be a first for Vollmer and Omaha. She and some 1,700 other competitors will be swimming before sellout crowds (14,500) for each of the 15 sessions at CenturyLink Center. That includes seven sessions of preliminaries beginning locally at 10 a.m. and eight sessions of semifinals and finals beginning at 6:45 p.m.

“I think selling out all the preliminaries is a little unexpected, but the event’s growing nicely, and it’s where it should be,” said Harold Cliff, president of the Omaha Sports Commission and chief operating officer of the trials since 2007.

Ticket sales have topped 200,000, up 40,000 from the total attendance in 2008 and 2012. Some 87 percent of the fans are coming from out of town. Ticket prices this year are about 8 percent higher than they were in 2012: from $550 to $350 for the 15 sessions, with 140 “Victory Row” deck side seats at $1,100.

Between sessions, the fans will fill restaurants in the nearby Old Market area and wander through the Aqua Zone fan fest area in the convention center adjacent to the arena. Huge murals of swimmers decorate the outer walls of nearby hotels, and there are 10-foot cutouts of local athletes “swimming” in the lagoon near a downtown mall. Omaha has adopted an everyone-into-the-pool attitude. 

“The last two Omaha meets have been the most exciting swimming events I’ve ever been to in my coaching career, including the Olympic venues,” said David Marsh, head coach of the 2016 women’s Olympic team and personal coach to 11-time Olympic medalist (five golds) Ryan Lochte. “I’m sure Omaha will do it again.”

For countless reasons – airport proximity, hotel availability, dozens of restaurants in walking distance – Omaha has become the perfect venue for the swim trials. Its success led to 2016 interest from 16 cities, and the two other eventual finalists, San Antonio and St. Louis, proposed having the meet in their domed football stadiums.

How did this happen? A combination of pool technology and a once-in-a-century swimmer.

After Indianapolis hosted its third straight trials in 2000 by selling out the 4,400-seat natatorium, USA Swimming realized the event had outgrown facilities of that size. By then, the development of portable “tank” pools had made it possible to stage the event in myriad locations, either indoors or outdoors.

“We used to have to bring the people to the pool,” said Mike Unger, USA Swimming’s assistant executive director. “Now we can bring the pool to the people anywhere – as long as the anywhere can meet our requirements the way Omaha does.”

In 2004, Long Beach, California, installed two 50-meter portable pools outdoors in an aquarium parking lot, with temporary seating for 10,000 around the competition venue. The result was attendance of more than 100,000, including sellouts at the last two finals sessions.

Omaha offered the possibility to go completely indoors because it had the combined space of the arena and adjacent convention center. There is a 10-lane, 50-meter competition pool, and, barely 100 meters away, a warmup pool with eight 50-meter lanes and five 25-meter lanes.

The shorter lanes owed to a suggestion by a Baltimore swim coach, Murray Stephens, who told USA Swimming that some athletes like to warm up at the shorter distance, especially one young man also from Baltimore.

That, of course, was Michael Phelps, now the greatest swimmer and most decorated Olympian in history. Phelps would come to Omaha in 2008 with the attention-getting goal of trying to win a record eight Olympic gold medals, which he achieved six weeks later in Beijing. This is his fifth – and avowedly last – Olympic Trials.

Since 2004, Phelps has talked frequently about helping the sport grow. His success – 22 Olympic medals, 18 golds – has been among the biggest factors in achieving that. 

“The sport has changed a lot, and it is going in the direction that I want,” he said Saturday. “Watching the sport take off from 2000 to what it is today is a significant change, but we can do more to promote this sport. I will go down swinging until the day I die to continue to try and change this sport, to take it to a higher level.”

The Phelps effect would be more directly pronounced on media attention than on attendance, but the former has clearly impacted the latter. NBC (seven days) and NBCSN are doing an hour of live coverage Sunday through Saturday and 30 minutes on the final day of the eight-day meet, July 3. All morning prelims are being streamed live on the NBC Live Extra app.

While that exposure undoubtedly attracts some casual fans to buy a ticket, the Omaha ticket sales increases owe more to the meet becoming must-see for the swimming community nationwide and the growth in the number of entries. The increase in the number of competitors brings more family and friends, none more than the group supporting 2012 Olympic champion Katie Ledecky, who has set 11 world records. She will have more than 50 family members in Omaha. 

There were only 420 competitors at Indianapolis in 1996. That increased to 1,220 in 2000 at Indy because of an easing in qualifying standards, then went back to 740 at Long Beach in 2004 before the return to 1,220 at Omaha in 2008. 

The explosion from 2004 to 2008 owed in part to the technologically advanced swim suits making it easier to achieve qualifying standards, known as “cuts.” Unger said the suits, banned at the end of 2009, also confused the standard-setting process for 2012, when there were 1,842 entrants.

Unger said USA Swimming used a formula that set the time of the 56th finisher in the 2012 prelims as the standard for 2016, and the standard became incrementally faster in every event. But the fields in most events are twice that big (with 1,740 qualifiers) because of the general improvement in the depth of swimming nationwide caused by the interest generated by athletes like Phelps, Lochte, Ledecky, Aaron Piersol, Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin.

“We’re in a golden age of U.S. swimming,” Unger said.

The also-rans at trials serve a purpose beyond selling tickets. For some, the experience becomes motivation to take their career to a higher level. For most, the experience is something they bring back to their homes, where friends, schools and local media often celebrate them, creating good publicity for the sport.

According to the Omaha World-Herald, there were just five swimmers in the 2008 trials with ties to Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa, which is just across the Missouri River from Omaha. This year, there are 20.

The number of swimmers has led to complaints from some elite coaches about overcrowding in the warmup pool. “Honestly, it’s not that bad,” Ledecky said. “We all are on different schedules. The warmup pools at international meets are really crowded, and I think those are the craziest.”

Yet USA Swimming is sensitive to the issue. Unger said the number of swimmers at the last two trials is “too many.” His boss, USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, would like it reduced to between 1,200 and 1,400, but Wielgus realizes that “no matter how aggressive we think we are with setting those time standards, we get kids who meet the mark. I’m willing to bet whatever mark we set (for 2020), we’re going to end up with 1,600 to 1,800 qualifying.”

Whether the meet ends up in Omaha in 2020 is uncertain, even though both parties would like to do it again. No wonder: it has become a profitable enterprise. 

In 2008, the local organizers bore all the cost to stage the meet (now about $7.5 million), and reaped all the revenues. For the last two trials, USA Swimming and the local organizing committee have been financial partners, which brought each a mid-six-figure operating profit. For USA Swimming, that is enhanced by a rights fee in the low seven figures from Omaha.

The current stumbling block in returning to Omaha is the dates. Because the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo begin 12 days earlier than the upcoming Rio Olympics, the natural date for the trials would overlap nearly the entire College World Series, which takes place just down the street from swimming. Having both events together for an extended period, with combined attendances around 40,000, would put considerable extra pressure on hotels, parking, restaurants and local volunteers.

“That’s not to say the two events can’t coexist, but it’s not ideal,” Wielgus said.

There was no such date conflict in 2008 and just a one-day overlap in 2012. This year, the swim fans will be sharing Omaha with baseball fans until at least Tuesday, depending on weather and results of the best-of-three final series scheduled to begin Monday.

“We’ll be cheering like crazy for whichever team wins game one Monday,” Unger said, with a laugh.

Wielgus said discussions with coaches, Omaha, NBC and the international swimming federation about the 2020 dates and site will begin after the Rio Olympics. 

The choices are not as wide as one might think: because it takes a month to get the site ready, all arenas with NBA or NHL teams are out of consideration because of the dates of those leagues’ playoffs. That leaves a city with a domed football stadium as a possible option, but it won’t have the intimate, right-on-top-of-the action atmosphere that exists at CenturyLink Arena. 

“It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be crazy,” Lochte said.

It’s going to be O!!!

Philip Hersh, who has covered 17 Olympic Games and was the Chicago Tribune’s Olympic specialist for 30 years, is a contributor to TeamUSA.org.