Top things we learned from USA Swimming Olympic Trials in Omaha

From Caeleb Dressel to 15-year-old Katie Grimes, the USA roster for Tokyo 2020 is a thrilling mix of experience and youth.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

With Caeleb Dressel, Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel having safely progressed from the 2021 Olympic Trials, Team USA will boast a star-studded roster at Tokyo 2020.

But a thrilling week of Wave II action also saw a host of exciting new talent book their places in Japan, ensuring that there will be a blend of youth and experience wearing red, white and blue.

The final roster consists of 26 women and 23 men. It is also one of the United States’ youngest ever Olympic swimming teams with 11 teenagers, 10 of whom are women. The youngest athletes on the team are 15-year old Katie Grimes, and 16-year-old Bella Sims.

Without further ado, here are the top things we learned from the US Olympic Trials.

Caeleb Dressel can handle the pressure

With Michael Phelps absent from a US Swim Trials for the first time in 21 years, many wondered if Caeleb Dressel had what it took to fill those sizable shoes.

Subsequently, there was an unbelievable amount of pressure on the Florida native’s shoulders to deliver. But he showed maturity and calmness beyond his 24 years to win the 50 free (tying his own American record), the 100 free and the 100 butterfly. It is likely that he will be eyeing world records in all three in Japan.

After the final of the men’s 100m free, Dressel jumped up on the lane line, flexed his muscles and cheered to the crowd. It was a statement to his rivals in Japan that he is happy, confident, and is going to take some beating.

While Phelps’ record of eight gold medals at a single Olympics isn’t under threat, Dressel could win seven - including four relays.

Katie Ledecky back to her best

After an illness at the 2019 World Championships contributed to Katie Ledecky losing some of her world titles, many started to doubt her ability.

But the 24-year-old, who hasn’t seen her family in a year due to coronavirus, proved the doubters wrong in style in Omaha.

The five-time Olympic champion will take on four individual freestyle individual events, including the debutant women’s 1500 free, where she owns the top-10 fastest times in history.

Ledecky’s biggest challenge will come in the 400 free, where reigning world champion Ariarne Titmus will be hoping to repeat her victory from the 2019 world champs.

Ledecky will also have to face the logistical challenge of racing the 200 free and 1500 free prelims in the same session in Tokyo. But after winning both events in an 85-minute period on Tuesday night, it looks like a challenge accepted.

Simone Manuel has grit

The shock of the event came in the women’s 100 free, where reigning Olympic champion Simone Manuel was eliminated with a seventh-place finish in the prelims. She had previously recorded six of the seven fastest times ever in the event.

But the 24-year-old showed her champion mentality on the final night of action. With all of her qualification hopes riding on the 50 free, Manuel, who won silver in the event at Rio 2016, thundered down the course to touch home first and book her place at Tokyo 2020.

While she hadn’t qualified in the manner she had expected, the sense of relief both from the swimmer and the crowd was palpable, and Team USA will be thankful to lean upon her considerable experience in Japan.

Manuel announced after the race that she had been suffering from overtraining syndrome over the past 12 months, and revealed how challenging it had been to overcome that stress.

Upsets and loss of experience

With such a deep field of talent to choose from, one small mistake could see even the most experienced of campaigners fail to even qualify for the Games.

And so it was that Olympic gold medallist Ryan Held, who finished 6th in the men’s 100 free, missed out on qualifying for Tokyo 2020. Sixth place would usually be good enough to qualify for a relay, but USA Swimming had already hit the maximum number of relay only swimmers that they can bring. Subsequently, Held became the odd-man out.

Rio 2016 silver medallist Kathleen Baker also failed to progress from one of the most competitive backstroke fields in Trials history, following her injury-plagued past few seasons.

Elsewhere, there was a resounding feeling of disappointment when 32-year-old veteran Nathan Adrian failed to make the top-two in his freestyle sprints. The 2021 Trials also proved a bridge too far for fellow Olympic champions Ryan Lochte (36) and Anthony Ervin (40). Time will tell how badly their experience is missed in the high-pressure relay legs.

However, with the likes of Olympic champ Lilly King, Olympic silver medallist Chase Kalisz and and four-time Olympian Allison Schmidt having safely qualified their places in Tokyo, the USA’s new crop of teenage talent shouldn’t be short of experienced mentors to lean on.

The future is bright

While the extra year in this Olympic cycle caused by the coronavirus pandemic may have pushed some of the older swimmers out of contention, it opened the door to plenty of exciting new talent.

Heading that list is Michael Andrew, who qualified his place in the 100 breast, 200 IM and 50 free.

The Team USA teenagers going to Tokyo include Katie Grimes, Bella Sims, Claire Curzan, Lydia Jocoby, Torri Huske, Phoebe Bacon, Emma Weyant, Regan Smith, Kate Douglass, Alex Walsh and Jake Mitchell.

“I told her the other day, you’re the future,” Ledecky said about Grimes, who is the same age Ledecky was when she won her first gold in the 800m free in London in 2012. “But after that race [the 800 at trials] I told her: ‘you’re the now.’”

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