Jun 25, 2016
In 2012, at age 11, he was a walleyed spectator. Four years later, at 15, he’s a participant. A few weeks ago he dropped a 1:03.62 in the men’s 100 breaststroke at a meet at MIT, seven one-hundredths inside the qualifying standard. He’ll be one of the youngest guys at the meet, and his eyes have gone from wide to narrow with intent. He won’t be in the mix this time, but he’ll be taking notes. He intends to be under the bright lights four years from now, and in eight years too.
His name is Dillon Hillis, of the Manhattan Makos, and he’s not alone.
Tomorrow, the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials begin in Omaha and there are over 1,700 entrants there to “compete” for less than 60 spots on the U.S. Olympic Team. The great majority of those have little to no shot at making it. Like 1,500 of them; that’s about 90%. Consider that for a moment. Nine in ten Olympic Trials qualifiers are not in the hunt to become Olympians. Even though the feel-good rhetoric is that everyone going to Trials “has a shot at making the Olympics.”
They don’t. And this is not a bad thing.
Today in the New York Times, Karen Crouse lays out the “Super Bowl week” atmosphere of the American swimming trials. She points out that 20 years ago, in 1996, “there were, on average, 35 entrants in the women’s events and 27 in the men.” Today, with comparatively ‘easier’ cuts, there are an average of 130 qualifiers in each women’s events, and 124 in the men’s. Put another way, that means that, in 2016, you have to be faster than about 100 less swimmers in your event. Twenty years ago, you had to be among the best 30 swimmers in each event; in ’16, among the top 130 or so.
That means that many many more swimmers will have the opportunity to experience the inspiration and the second-to-none spectacle of Trials in Omaha. So what if most don’t have a shot. They might someday. And watching the best swim show on earth is going to put a lot of wind in their sails.
In her Times piece, Crouse leads with the example of Caeleb Dressel. Four years ago, he tied for 145th out of 167 in the 50 free. This year he’s seeded second to Nathan Adrian in the same event, and after his short course exploits this year, he might be the most “Now Swimmer” at the meet. Dressel shared with Crouse how, in 2012, he sat away from his coach and parents, and spent some time examining the proverbial habits of very successful swimmers. (I found the advice so good, I sent it to 15-year-old Mr. Hillis earlier today…)
Of course, this super-sized Trials is going to have its grumblers. Crouse mentions the coaches of elite swimmers (NOTE: if there is a segment of society more prone to grumbling, I’m not sure I’ve met it!). The coaches moan about two things, mainly: packed warm-up lanes and brutally long prelims sessions. Which must be rather ironic for the organizers of these Olympic Trials — The competition in Omaha is unlike any other swim meet on the planet. Yet, its two drawbacks appear to be the exact two things that every coach hates about every other swim meet! Packed lanes and long prelims? Yeah, I’ve seen that movie.
Trials twenty years ago were different. It may have been staged like every other meet, but its exclusivity made it awfully cushy for the select athletes and coaches. With only a couple heats of prelims for each event, that meant luxuriously open warm up lanes, along with short and sweet morning sessions. All the better to deliver peak performances at night.
You can’t blame a lot of the athletes for preferring it the old way too. If you’re among the 200 or so swimmers in Omaha with an actual realistic shot at becoming an Olympian, chances are you’d like open warmup lanes and quick prelims and a long nap before finals. Chances are that you’re also in your mid-20s and this is your last best shot at making the Team. That’s the average age of the U.S. Team, and it’s been inching older for awhile now.
For most of these athletes, this is the end of road. Or it’s not. Maybe there’s one more destination in Rio. But either way, you’re probably not much interested in the sold out crowd or the crazed spectacle this meet has become. What you’re interested in is delivering the greatest performance of your life. The focus is so narrow, the nerves so raw, the last thing you want is distractions.
But you know what, if you’re one of those 200 swimmers or one of those grumbling coaches, it’s time to suck it up. This is the hardest Olympic team to qualify for, in any sport or country on earth, and therefore, shouldn’t it be a brutal test in every way? It should be the hardest thing you’ve ever done, right up until the time you touch the wall and look at the scoreboard. You’ve spent your life dealing with crowded warmup lanes and long prelims. Let’s hope you can deal with it by now.
Because now you’ll be doing it inside a sold-out arena, in front of 14,000 screaming swim fans.
And among those watching – closely – will be swimmers like Dillon Hillis.