By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
The Olympic Trials is an exam you studied for your entire life, aced and then was told, “You don’t know a thing.”
Throw what we “learned” out the door – no one has any conclusive idea what will happen in London. Team USA starts from scratch. The new Olympic roster assembles and begins again. A new season, a new outlook.
What did we learn about Phelps and Lochte? Very little. Phelps claims he wasn’t fully rested. Lochte attempted triples. “The Olympic Games” have been circled red on both superstars’ calendars. It’s their focus. Their passion. Their heart. We won’t know anything until we know who touches first in London.
You thought the previous NBA season was short? Swimmers venturing to London are entering a three-week, ultra-condensed swim season. Try getting in training shape, traveling, and tapering, all over again -- after the most intense journey of your life.
In some ways, for these newly-minted Olympians, much of the pressure is off. They made the team. They got in. Most swimmers sauntered -- gasping, crying, astounded -- into the media zone after their Trials races with
huge smiles. Many expressed relief after escaping the pressure of making the team. Competing at the Trials is like kicking and pulling through the water with an 800-pound gorilla riding your back. You’ll swim much faster without the gorilla.
It’s difficult to say we learned anything from Trials. But we can make assumptions. One assumption is that Team USA will swim much, much faster in London (see the gorilla analogy). Here are five more:
1. “Phelps vs. Lochte” Will Be The Biggest Story At The 2012 Olympic Games.
Some would say Phelps’s scratching of the 200m freestyle takes away from the rivalry. Lessens it. Makes it less important. I say, Phelps's 200 free scratch enhances “Phelps vs. Lochte.” Here’s why: Phelps and Lochte face off in two events, the 400 IM and 200 IM. The IMs are the only events that dictate “greatest all-around swimmer” on Earth. At Trials, we saw the greatest swimmer in the history of our sport (Phelps) lose to someone else (Lochte). Which was profound. It meant something. Just like London will mean even more. Later at Trials, in the
shorter 200 IM, Phelps reclaimed victory. NBC nearly drowned in drool imagining the marketing potential.
Ask yourself: If Lochte wins, does he pass Spitz as the second greatest swimmer of all-time? Does knocking off “The Greatest” make you the greatest? (It’s a legitimate question.) And if Phelps wins, what does that mean for Lochte’s legacy? Will he be discussed as the guy who couldn’t beat Phelps? More pressing: if they split victories, will there be a tie-breaker showdown in Cowboys Stadium this Thanksgiving? Whatever happens, I’m glad they
are on our team. (Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte make an excellent case for human cloning.)
2. The Magic Is Back.
For a while, there were many moments when people were nervous for Team USA. Would Natalie make the team? Would Lezak be back? What about Brendan? Fortunately, many veterans qualified. They will lead Team USA in
London by swimming fast, of course, but also by cheering, mentoring, leading, talking, hand-holding, consoling, high-fiving. Natalie Coughlin again makes the Olympic team. She will play a valuable leadership role. Brendan Hansen will add tremendous guidance to the 400 medley relay. Matt Grevers solidified his role in that much-needed lead-off position. And Jason Lezak. The “Rocky” of swimming. I’ve been making Rocky jokes about Lezak on Twitter these past two weeks (like imagining Lezak prepping for the 100 finals somewhere in a cold, dark meat locker somewhere in Omaha) but the truth is, Jason Lezak is a living legend. Team USA needs legends. Team USA needs that aura of magic. Lezak was the magic maker in 2008. It’s great mojo to have him back.
3. “The Well of Tears” Has Happy Ones, Too.
Gary Hall Jr. said that the warm-down pool at the Olympic Trials is the “well of tears.” Hidden away from the competition pool, it is a safe haven for swimmers to express true feelings, away from the limelight. But
there are happy tears at Trials too. Like Lia Neal’s heart-warming, post-race interviews in the mixed zone, or Ariana Kukors emotional walk-through, or a handful of other athletes. The Olympic Trials is the most intense sports event in the world. It’s steel sharpening steel. Just by qualifying, you’re in the 1% club. And the rest of us – the 99% -- don’t mind celebrating swimming’s version of the 1%. We’re proud of you. Congratulations to all who competed.
4. The Future of Swimming Looks Bright.
Anyone who bemoans the future of USA Swimming, look no further than the 200 backstroke events, men’s and women’s. On the men’s side, three of the most dynamic swimmers in our future – Ryan Murphy, Jack Conger,
and Jacob Pebley – showed America why swimming’s “After Phelps” future is bright. Murphy wowed all week, including dominating his own age group national record in the 100m backstroke while challenging Peirsol’s record in the 200. In the women’s 200m backstroke, every finalist was a teenager except for Teresa Crippen. When is the last time an Olympic Trials championship finals featured seven teenagers? While it’s true, many older and post-graduate athletes competed, some standout youngsters hinted there’s a long road of success ahead.
5. The Olympic Roster is Diversifying.
Many coaches around the country, from Compton to Philadelphia to Detroit, say the same thing: If kids can see it, they can see it. Swimming, at the elite level, is a mostly white sport. The Olympic team has never had more than person of African American descent on a team for an Olympics. But at Olympic level, the sport is diversifying. Cullen Jones once again qualified. Lia Neal made the team. Anthony Ervin qualified. Team USA has quite a few athletes from a variety of diverse backgrounds and races and cultures. It’s wonderful to see, from Compton to Connecticut.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter