DALLAS — Michael Phelps couldn't remember the name of the Omaha arena that held the 2008 U.S. Swim Trials. Even if he had, it's changed since then to the CenturyLink Center.
What Phelps remembers is, to him, more important: How Omaha's arena and mindset about hosting the Trials helped the sport.
“In order to grow the sport, we have to give more people the opportunity to come and watch us,” said Phelps, the star of the 2008 Trials and Olympics in Beijing. “And there aren't many swimming pools that can hold more than four or five thousand people. So you have to think about building a pool inside a sports arena.”
Myrtha Pools did that. Had Omaha stopped at that Spartan approach, it would have been notable enough, packing in 15,000 fans for a swim event.
But the 2008 Trials were tricked out, a visual spectacle. Fireworks. Fountains. Spotlights. An Aqua Zone. Fun. A kind of Star Search for swimming.
“The whole atmosphere was insane,” said Ryan Lochte, Phelps' biggest challenger in 2012. “It was awesome. The coolest thing. The way everything went — it was perfect.”
Added Nathan Adrian: “It's something that I, as a swimmer, hadn't really experienced. It added to the atmosphere — the show of it.”
NBC capitalized on the outsized nature of the event in 2008, televising some of the Trials finals in primetime. The network rode that momentum to Beijing, where Phelps won eight gold medals and sparked a ratings blitz.
This year, NBC will broadcast the finals live all eight nights of the Trials, June 25 through July 2. Not even the College World Series on ESPN — a cable network — affords Omaha that kind of broad visibility.
But swimmer Natalie Coughlin, another 2008 star returning for her final Olympics, said the city earned this sequel.
“When I heard ‘Omaha' for the Trials last time, I was a bit surprised,” Coughlin said. “Because I knew nothing of the city. And going there — it's amazing how the city really gets behind the sport. Every shop — and restaurant — has a sign about the Olympics. And photos of the athletes.”
Mid-sized cities are good for big events, Coughlin said, because of the effort they put into it. That matches the effort swimmers have to make for the Trials, a grueling week of practice and competition.
The U.S. Trials are held much later in the calendar year than some swim-crazy nations — like Australia — so American swimmers often train hard until early June, then have to gauge the length and effectiveness of their taper just right for the Trials.
Some get it right.
Phelps does, Adrian said, which is why he won so much in 2008. Others just have to battle their way through for a spot in the Olympics.
“It's awful — awful!” Coughlin said. “I hate the Trials. It's a necessary evil ... it's a very stressful meet. There are eight people in that final. Eight want to make it. Two make it. And you've trained pretty much your entire life for that 58 seconds or that two minutes.”
Phelps said the Trials are harder than the Olympics because of the team's depth. Swimmers who could easily win bronze in London for a given event may not even be there. And Phelps, having sloughed off two years of training for sheer lack of motivation in 2009 and ‘10, is playing catch-up, especially on Lochte. He may not come close to qualifying for eight events in 2012. He may qualify for half that.
But Phelps likes a big stage and said he flourished in it four years ago in Omaha.
“It makes us swim faster,” he said. “Being able to feed off the cheers the fans put out there. You really do hear them every stroke. It definitely helps us when we're tired or we're in a tight race.”
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