An In-Depth Look At How to Watch Swimming’s 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials

by Peggy Shinn

Caeleb Dressel poses during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on November 23, 2019 in West Hollywood, California. 


U.S. Olympic Team Trials—Swimming kick off at the CHI Health Center Omaha on Friday evening, June 4, with Wave I. But the 2020 U.S. Olympic swimming team will not be determined until Wave II, an eight-day event that begins next Sunday, June 13. Over those eight days, some of the world’s best swimmers will duke it out in 28 finals for the privilege of representing the U.S.A. at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Here are details on how to watch and answers to a few frequently asked questions.
What is Wave I vs Wave II?
To compete at U.S. Olympic Team Trials—Swimming, athletes must meet time standards for each stroke and distance. But due to the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, USA Swimming divided trials into two waves—or essentially, two meets—each with their own time standards. 
To determine who qualified for which wave, USA Swimming evaluated results from the past five U.S. Olympic Team Trials (2000 to 2016) and adjusted time standards. The Wave II time standard for each event was adjusted to the 41st seeded time. Swimmers who met that standard would qualify for Wave II. 
Swimmers who qualified for trials under the original time standards but were not fast enough to qualify for Wave II were invited to compete in Wave I. They can qualify for Wave II by finishing in the top two of each race during Wave I. These swimmers can swim all events in Wave II for which they have achieved the original qualifying standard.
Wave II serves as the sole U.S. Olympic Team Trials for pool swimmers. About 1,500 swimmers have met the time standards to compete in either Wave I or Wave II.
Who Qualifies for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020?
Swimmers in Wave II will compete in 28 events. Preliminary heats are held each morning. The 16 fastest swimmers from prelims move on to the semifinals in races 200 meters or shorter. 
For swimmers competing in races 400 meters and longer, the fastest eight in prelims move directly to a final.
Semifinals are held the night following prelims and are interspersed between finals. The fastest eight swimmers from semifinals move on to the finals in each stroke. Three to four finals are scheduled each evening starting June 13 and running through June 20.
Swimmers who finish in the top four of the 100- and 200-meter freestyle events at trials, along with the first-place finishers in all the other events, are named to the U.S. Olympic Team first. 
A maximum of 26 men and 26 women can be named to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team. But a handful of swimmers will likely win more than one event, opening up spots for other swimmers to be named to the team. The second-place finishers in each of the other events will be added to the team in a priority order based on an integrated world ranking from 2019 and 2020. 
If, after adding the second-place finishers from each of the other individual events, there is still room on the team, the fifth-place finishers from the 100 and 200 freestyle are added (using the same world ranking). Then, if there is still room on the team, the sixth-place finishers from the 100 and 200 freestyle are added (using the same world ranking). 
At the Tokyo Games, the third- through sixth-place finishers in the 100 and 200 freestyle will not swim the individual event but are considered for the 400 and 800 freestyle relays.
New Swimming Events at the Tokyo Games
The men’s 800-meter freestyle and women’s 1,500-meter freestyle debut at the Tokyo Games. In prior Olympiads, only men swam the 1,500 and only women swam the 800.
The mixed medley relay also makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo. The event consists of two men and two women, but in no particular order. 
For example, at the 2019 world championships, Ryan Murphy swam backstroke in the mixed medley relay finals for the U.S. Lilly King did the breaststroke leg, Caeleb Dressel took the butterfly leg, and Simone Manuel brought it home in freestyle, finishing second to Australia by 0.02 of a second. By comparison, Australia fielded men in the backstroke and breaststroke legs, with their two women swimming butterfly and freestyle. Great Britain claimed the bronze medal at those world champs with their female swimmers taking the first and fourth legs (backstroke and freestyle), and their men swimming the breaststroke and butterfly.
Open Water vs Pool
The open water race—or marathon swimming—is a 10-kilometer event for both men and women held outdoors in a large body of water. In Rio, it was contested off the beach by Fort Copacabana. In Tokyo, the men’s and women’s open water races will be held at Odaiba Marine Park.
Olympic silver medalist (2012) Haley Anderson, along with Ashley Twitchell and 2016 Olympian Jordan Wilimovsky, qualified for the Tokyo Games with their top-10 finishes at the 2019 FINA World Championships. 
Olympic trials races for pool swimming—contested next week in Omaha—are as short as 50 meters (but only for freestyle at the Olympic Games) and as long as 1,500 meters, again only for freestyle. The other three strokes—backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly—feature 100- and 200-meter races, with the individual medleys (IMs) going 200 and 400 meters. Men and women also swim relays: 4x100 and 4x200 freestyle relays per gender, 4x100 medley relays per gender, and a mixed relay (new this year). But relays are not contested at trials.
Trials Races That Will Be Close
The U.S. Olympic Team Trials is one of the hottest swim meets of the quadrennial—often even more competitive than the Games themselves. For this reason, every race will be tight. But some races have clear favorites—like Katie Ledecky in the 400, 800, and 1,500 freestyles. 
Look for the 50-meter freestyle “splash and dash” races on June 20 to be just that, with the winner almost undetectable by the naked eye. On June 15, the women’s 100 backstroke, with more than four favorites, is being touted as the “showdown of showdowns.” And young up-and-comers will be challenging the Olympic veterans in all the races, but especially the women’s 100 free (June 18) and butterfly (June 14).
What If A Swimmer Tests Positive for Covid-19?
The U.S. Olympic Team Trials—Swimming have established testing protocols for all athletes and participants at trials, and USA Swimming is encouraging everyone involved to receive a vaccine. 
Should a participant test positive for Covid-19 either right before or during trials, the mitigation plan states that the participant may request subsequent testing. The mitigation plan states: “They must be asymptomatic and produce two negative Covid-19 PCR test results (and no positives) in order to be permitted to participate in the Trials. If, for any reason, two negative Covid-19 PCR test results are not returned prior to the time of the athlete’s competition, the athlete will not be permitted to participate at the Trials.”
If an athlete tests positive and does not submit to a confirmation test, or if an athlete tests positive and a confirmation test is also positive for Covid-19, that athlete will unfortunately not be permitted to compete at trials.
How to Watch
Daily finals coverage of both Wave I and Wave II will be broadcast across NBC channels. Along with the live finals coverage, 24 hours of preliminaries will be streamed on and the NBC Sports app. Wave I prelims will also be live streamed on


 Fri., June 4 Wave I Finals Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA 8 p.m. ET
 Sat., June 5 Wave I Finals Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA 8 p.m. ET
 Sun., June 6 Wave I Finals Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA 8 p.m. ET
 Mon., June 7 Wave I Finals Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA 8 p.m. ET
 Sun., June 13 Wave II Qualifying Heats NBCSN 5:30 p.m. ET*
  Wave II Finals NBC 8 p.m. ET/PT
 Mon., June 14 Wave II Qualifying Heats NBCSN 6:30 p.m. ET*
  Wave II Finals NBC 8 p.m. ET/PT
 Tues., June 15 Wave II Qualifying Heats NBCSN 6:30 p.m. ET*
  Wave II Finals NBC 8 p.m. ET/PT 
 Wed., June 16 Wave II Qualifying Heats NBCSN 6:30 p.m. ET*
  Wave II Finals NBC 8 p.m. ET/PT 
 Thurs., June 17 Wave II Qualifying Heats NBCSN 6:30 p.m. ET*
  Wave II Finals NBCSN 8 p.m. ET/PT
  Wave II Finals NBC 10 p.m.ET/PT*
 Fri., June 18 Wave II Qualifying Heats NBCSN 6 p.m. ET*
  Wave II Finals NBC 9 p.m. ET/PT
 Sat., June 19 Wave II Qualifying Heats NBCSN 6:30 p.m. ET*
  Wave II Finals NBC 9 p.m. ET
 Sun., June 20 Wave II Finals NBC 8:15 p.m. ET

Additional information on the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Swimming can be found on
* Delayed coverage.

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