OMAHA, United States: Superstars Katie Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel aim to cement their Tokyo Games berths as the pressure-packed US Olympic swimming trials get underway on Sunday.
Both freestyle phenomenon Ledecky and multi-event star Dressel bring formidable credentials to the eight-day meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, where only a top-two finish can secure an individual race berth in Tokyo and one poor race can consequently spell heartbreak.
The tension has only been ramped up by the one-year delay to the Games because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think the kids are dying to race,” said Ray Looze, who coaches breaststroker Lilly King.
He thought times overall might be a little slower than a typical trials.
“If anybody sets a world record, that’s a phenomenal accomplishment,” Looze said. “But I think there’s going to be some world records that go down because there’s been some people that have had to go through a great deal and they really, really want it bad.”
While meets and even training were shut down for a time, Dressel has demonstrated flashes of brilliance with two short-course world records in International Swimming League action in November.
In May, he clocked an impressive 51.15sec in the 100m butterfly at a meeting in Atlanta. It was nowhere near his world record of 49.50 set in 2019, but Dressel said his long course times were trending in the right direction heading into trials.
The 24-year-old is a contender in the 50m and 100m freestyles as well as the 100m fly and will be a key contributor to the US relays.
Since Rio in 2016 — where he teamed with Michael Phelps and Nathan Adrian as part of a gold medal-winning 4x200m free relay — Dressel has emerged as a star adding 13 world titles to his resume.
He’s entered in six events in Omaha and will likely spearhead the US challenge in the Tokyo pool now that Phelps — whose 28 Olympic medals include 23 gold — has departed the scene.
This year’s trials mark the first time since 1996 that Phelps hasn’t competed at a US Olympic swimming trials.
Dressel says he doesn’t see himself as picking up the Phelps mantle.
“I don’t think that falls on my shoulders alone,” he said.
For a start, there’s Ledecky.
A prohibitive favorite in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m freestyles, she is the world record holder in the 400m, 800m and 1500m free.
The addition of the 1500m free for women to the Olympic programme gives her one more chance to add to her cache of five Olympic gold medals.
Rio medallists back for another shot at Olympic glory also include 100m free gold medallist Simone Manuel, King and backstroker Ryan Murphy.
Regan Smith, meanwhile, will be vying to make a first Olympic team after emerging as a backstroke star with world records at 100m and 200m in 2019.
Still just 19, Smith has plenty of big meet experience under her belt to help her cope with the pressure-cooker atmosphere of trials after a year in which her upward trajectory was interrupted by the pandemic. It remains to be seen if other speedy but less seasoned teens will be able to do the same.
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