By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Having lived in San Antonio and visited St. Louis numerous times (Rams football, NCAA basketball, etc.), I know they’re both great cities for sports.
As recent finalists to host the 2016 Olympic Swim Trials, either would have been a great choice because of their histories with national sporting events – but what Omaha offered as host city of the past two Trials has been unparalleled. USA Swimming and the USOC recognized those attributes, and as was announced last weekend, chose Omaha to host a third-straight Trials in 2016.
The year I lived in San Antonio, the city hosted the Men’s NCAA Final Four and did a fantastic job of welcoming everyone to town. Add in all the fantastic things to do within walking distance of the Alamodome (especially the famous River Walk), and it’s a sport fan’s dream come true in many ways.
The same can be said about St. Louis, home to NFL and MLB teams as well as a regular host for NCAA events. The times I’ve been to St. Louis for sports, I’ve always had a great time. Logistically speaking, the city is easy to traverse, people are friendly and there’s a lot to do when you’re not sitting in the stands.
But when it comes to hosting an event, few cities (and their corporate partners, business owners, cabbies, citizens on the street, etc.) do a better job than Omaha did the past two Olympic Swim Trials. I honestly can’t think of a better environment for the organization’s signature meet. The swimming community is a very close-knit group, and the intimate nature of the Trials in Omaha is one of the big selling points of its return.
Maybe I’m a little biased (I live across the river in Iowa and work in Omaha), but I’ve never seen a city embrace a sporting event like Omahans (as well as nearby cities and towns) did at last year’s Trials. After embracing the 2008 Trials, most people in town were already familiar with swimming and its many stars – so when the event returned, they had a much better understanding and appreciation for the sport.
When you factor in the proximity of hotels, restaurants and shopping (as well as other events, including the College World Series at nearby TD Ameritrade Park) to the CenturyLink Arena, it’s an ideal setting for the meet that decides the U.S. Olympic Team.
For these reasons (like I said, I’m a bit biased but not wrong), I’m ecstatic (and so is the rest of the city) to welcome everyone back for a third Olympic Trials in 2016. The event last summer was the best so far.
Having had a trial run in 2008, the Omaha organizing committee blew the doors off of last year’s meet in terms of showmanship, facility functionality and volunteer participation. I honestly don’t think it could have been better – and that was the general consensus of the athletes, coaches and family I spoke with during the event, many of whom were in town for Trials four years earlier.
They all loved the relaxed, comfortable atmosphere of the Trials and especially appreciated how easy it was to get around town – by foot and/or car. Getting to and from practice and races was a piece of cake compared to other cities where hotels aren’t very close and traffic creates a constant struggle.
The numbers speak for themselves. The 2008 Trials were the most successful in USA Swimming’s history – until the 2012 event surpassed it. More than 164,000 fans attended the eight days and nights of competition, and the Trials were broadcast LIVE on NBC every night.
Last year’s Trials were nominated in the category of “Sports Event of the Year” for the illustrious Sports Business Awards. The winner will be announced next month.
I worked the Trials in 2008 for several newspapers and websites but purposely chose to volunteer my time helping USA Swimming in various capacities last year – and I completely enjoyed the experience. Having been through one Trials in Omaha, everything was wonderfully familiar and comfortable – and I can only imagine that will be the case in 2016 (which really isn’t that far off).
After coming close last year, I’m excited to see up-and-comers like Ryan Murphy and Becca Mann (among many others) take that next step toward making their first Olympic team. In three years, they will be among the veterans of the sport – completing the swimming cycle that saw them as teenagers in 2012. And there are always new names and faces to marvel at once they dive into the water.
It’s difficult to imagine the Omaha Sports Commission can do anything to top last year’s meet, but in bidding for the 2016 Trials, they promised new and innovative options to make the next Trials even better, highlighted by the installation of a new $6 million center-hung high-definition scoreboard. I’m excited to see what other enhancements and improvements are coming, but like everyone else, I’ll have to wait a few more years.
In the meantime, I’ll keep my eyes open for new and exciting changes and developments in town as the city prepares to welcome everyone back again. Stay tuned – but don’t blink because the next three years will most likely fly by.