A Look Inside the Numbers As Swimmers Compete For A Spot In Tokyo At U.S. Olympic Trials

by Peggy Shinn

Simone Manuel poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympics shoot on Nov. 21, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.


Inside the Numbers presented by DeVry is a series that gives fans a peek at the numbers behind what it takes to qualify for Team USA and other incredible facts about Team USA sports.


Next month, hundreds of U.S. swimmers will dive into the pool at Omaha’s CHI Health Center Arena (formerly CenturyLink Center) for the U.S. Olympic Trials—Swimming. From teens who have set age group records to Olympic gold medalists, they are aiming for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team competing in Tokyo. 
The competition will be fierce as everyone brings their A Game to trials. Swimmers often say that it’s as difficult to make the U.S. Olympic team as it is to win a medal at the Games—perhaps even harder. 
In every race except the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyles, the top two finishers will earn a trip to the Tokyo Games. In those two freestyle races, the top six can qualify (to fill out the 4x100 and 4x200 freestyle relays in Tokyo). 
With trials just around the corner and the Games themselves not far behind this summer, here’s a closer look at swimming by the numbers presented by DeVry University.
The U.S. Olympic Trials—Swimming are typically one big event held over eight days. Hundreds of swimmers who have met qualifying time standards in each stroke and distance enter their respective races and hope to advance to the finals.
But this year is different. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and continued concerns about overcrowding indoor spaces, USA Swimming decided to host 2021 Olympic Trials in two meets—or two waves. Athletes who have met the Wave II time standards (set at the 41st seed time* per event as of January 28, 2021) are invited to compete in Wave II Trials, held from June 13-20. Swimmers who qualified using the original time standards but are below the 41st seed will compete in Wave I (June 4-7). Then the top two swimmers from Wave 1 races are invited to compete in Wave II, which remains the final qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team.
Three new events debut at the Olympic Games Tokyo: men’s 800-meter freestyle, women’s 1,500-meter freestyle, and the 4 x 100 mixed medley relay. The U.S. won a silver medal in the mixed medley relay at the 2019 world championships—with Ryan Murphy leading off the backstroke leg, Lilly King as the only woman swimming breaststroke, Caeleb Dressel taking over in butterfly, and Simone Manual bringing home the team in the freestyle (the order of genders is up to each country). 
In the 1,500, five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky is a heavy favorite to qualify, then win gold in Tokyo.
As for the men’s 800, open water swimmer Jordan Wilimovsky is hoping to compete in the pool as well in Tokyo. At the Rio Games, Wilimovsky finished fourth in the 1,500 freestyle and fifth in the 10-kilometer open water swim.
Omaha has hosted U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming four times (2008, 2012, 2016, and 2021) at its huge downtown arena and convention center. Not an aquatics facility, a temporary 50-meter-long pool has been installed for each Olympic Trials (see “2,500,000” below for more details on the temporary pool).
Until the IOC added three new events to the 2020 Olympic Games program, swimming had not had a new pool event in 24 years. The women’s 4x200 freestyle relay made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Jenny Thompson anchored the U.S. to gold in that race.


Only a handful of U.S. Olympic swimmers retired after the 2016 Rio Games, and 25 Olympic gold medalists will vie with up-and-comers in Omaha for a chance to defend their Olympic titles in Tokyo. Defending gold medalists in the individual events include Lilly King, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel, and Ryan Murphy. They are all strong favorites to qualify for another Olympic Games.


At U.S. Olympic Trials, swimmers only compete in 28 individual events or 14 per gender: six freestyle races in distances from 50 to 1,500 meters; 100 and 200-meter races in backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly; and 200- and 400-meter individual medley (IM) races that combine backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle. The top two finishers in each race will earn a trip to Tokyo. Additional freestyle relay members, who will swim relay prelims in Tokyo, will be selected in both the 100- and 200-meter freestyles if quota spots remain.


Of the 32 races on the swimming program at the Rio Olympic Games, U.S. swimmers won medals in 29 of them. Team USA only fell short in the men’s 400-meter freestyle, women’s 200-meter breaststroke, and the women’s 200-meter butterfly. With the addition of three new events (see “3” above), the swimming program in Tokyo has expanded to 35 races. Look for Team USA swimmers to dominate again in most of them.


A maximum of 56 swimmers (28 of each gender, not including open water swimmers) can qualify to compete for the U.S. in swimming at the Olympic Games Tokyo—two per individual event. But several swimmers, like Katie Ledecky, will likely qualify in more than one event, which opens up spots for more freestyle relay swimmers who can compete for the team in preliminary heats in Tokyo. Up to four additional swimmers can qualify in both the 100- and 200-meter freestyles.


Approximately 750 swimmers will compete in Wave II of U.S. Olympic Trials—Swimming from June 13-20. 


Omaha’s CHI Health Center Arena is not an aquatic facility. So to host U.S. Olympic Trials—Swimming, Italian company Myrtha has installed two temporary pools in the arena. The competition pool is 50 meters in length, 26 meters wide to accommodate 8 lanes, and is spec-ed at 2.5 meters deep. But according to the engineer in charge of technical services, the pool is closer to 2.64 meters deep.

The warm-up pool—hidden “backstage”—is 50 yards long by 25 yards wide, with a 25-meter-long six-lane “bump out” for additional training space. 

Both pools were filled with 2.5 million gallons of water from a fire hose.

Even though some of the best swimmers in the world are competing at Trials, both pools have lifeguards.

* USA Swimming evaluated the past five Olympic Trials (2000-2016) to determine what seeds entering previous Olympic Trials qualified for Olympic Trials finals in each event, and then the Olympic Team. Historical data showed that the lowest (slowest) seeded athlete to make the Olympic Team was the 38th seeded athlete (in 2000), and the lowest (slowest) seeded athlete to make an Olympic Trials final was the 41st seeded athlete (in 2008).

An award-winning freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to since its inception in 2008.