Before the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Swimming had even concluded last summer, there was talk among officials that USA Swimming was already looking into staging the next edition of the event in the same place: the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska.
That intent has now been made official, as USA Swimming announced that its 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials will return to Omaha for the fourth consecutive time. The event will be held from June 21-28 and will serve as the sole selection event for the indoor swimming Olympic team.
“Bringing the Olympic Trials back to Omaha has always been our priority, as the city of Omaha, the Omaha Sports Commission and the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority have worked diligently to make this arguably the best swimming event in the world and one of the premier events in all of sports,” USA Swimming Interim Chief Executive Officer Mike Unger said. “The CenturyLink Center Omaha venue, surrounding facilities, hotels and restaurants provide the ideal set-up for coaches and athletes from a competition perspective and also to showcase the sport to fans. Omaha has done a tremendous job welcoming our swimmers, coaches, fans and families with open arms.”
Omaha staged its first swimming trials in 2008 and completely revolutionized how swim meets were held. Indianapolis had three consecutive editions of Olympic trials, selling out a 4,400-seat natatorium in 2000. The event then moved to Long Beach, California in 2004, where two portable “tank” pools were set up in an aquarium parking lot and surrounded by temporary seating for 10,000. Attendance skyrocketed to more than 100,000 with sellouts at the last two finals sessions.
When Omaha took over, it moved the entire event indoors into the combined space of the arena and convention center. The convention center allowed the warmup pool to be built right next door to the competition pool, while there was still ample space for a fan fest area, dubbed Aqua Zone.
The result was a 14,000-seat arena customized perfectly for a swim meet. Omaha directors added pyrotechnics and a lighted waterfall for effect, leading two-time Olympian Conor Dwyer to liken the event to “the Super Bowl of swimming.” In 2016, the event was closed by a performance of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” punctuating the athlete of the meet and official U.S. Olympic Team announcements. What had previously been unidentifiable from any other swim meet has become a destination.
In 2016, 1,700 competitors raced in front of sellout crowds – 14,500 spectators – in each of the 15 sessions held, including seven sessions of preliminaries. Ticket sales in 2008 and 2012 hovered around 160,000 and reached 200,000 in 2016. Prices rose about 8 percent from 2012 to 2016, with “Victory Row” deck side seats going for $1,100.
In Omaha, swimming trials have become a must-see event for the nationwide swimming community. While casual local fans are inclined to turn up, 87 percent of fans come from out of town. The increase in the number of entries also brings in more families and friends to support their swimmers: in 2016, Katie Ledecky had more than 50 family members with her in Omaha.
The CenturyLink Center has been the perfect site for swimming trials for a variety of reasons, not the least of which include proximity to an airport and the hotel connected to the arena by a skyway. In 2016, 16 cities showed interest in hosting the event, with San Antonio and St. Louis each proposing to hold the meet in their domed football stadiums.
USA Swimming, however, decided to stay at home in Omaha.