Monday June 27th, 2016

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On Sunday, the U.S. Olympic swimming Trials began in Omaha, where six Olympians were named to Team USA, a well-known veteran didn’t qualify in his first event and an American record was broken. Here are five thoughts from the the first night:

1. Ryan Lochte turns heads by finishing third, and not qualifying for the Olympic team in the 400-meter individual medley

The very first final of these Olympic Trials brought quite a surprise: Lochte finished third in the 400-meter IM, and for the first time since the 2000, neither Michael Phelps nor the reigning Olympic gold medalist will be swimming the 400-meter IM for Team USA at the Olympics. University of Georgia teammates Chase Kalisz and Jay Litherland qualified for their first Olympic team in the event.

The result becomes less surprising, knowing that reports came out after the final that Lochte had strained his groin during the preliminary heats earlier that day, making breaststroke—already his worst stroke—incredibly painful. Lochte jumped out to an early lead in the butterfly and backstroke legs, knowing he’d need it to compensate for the breaststroke, but he lost his momentum, and faded to third in the freestyle—a completely uncharacteristic move from the veteran.

Q&A with first-time Olympian Jay Litherland, a triplet with TRIPLE citizenship

Before trials, many didn’t think that Lochte would even swim the grueling event. He hasn’t swum the event internationally recently, and he’s swimming five other events in Omaha throughout the week. But Lochte has never been one to back down from a challenge.

Lochte’s third-place finish also serves as a reminder of the brutality of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials. If you finish first or second, your take your place in American swimming history by representing the nation on the largest of stages. But if you finish third, even by the slightest of margins, you’re forced to wait another four long years for a chance at glory (or hang up the goggles for good). Of course, Lochte has already cemented his legacy, but a third-place finish at the trials is arguably the worst in the sport.

This isn’t it for Lochte. He still has the 200-meter IM to race, along with 100- and 200-meter freestyles, the 200-meter backstroke and the 100-meter butterfly.

2. Maya DiRado, who nearly stopped training in 2014, could (finally!) become a household name

DiRado clinched a spot on her first—and only—Olympic team, winning the women’s 400-meter IM in 4:33.73, three seconds faster than 2012 Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Beisel. 

At the 2012 Olympic Trials, DiRado finished fourth in the 200- and 400-meter IMs, and she took it in stride, simply planning to stop swimming when she graduated from Stanford in ’14 and move on. Well, even the best-laid plans don’t pan out. Dirado chose to keep swimming, and it’s finally paying off, in the form of of a gold and a silver in the IM events at the Pan Pacific championships, and a silver in the 400-meter IM at last year's world championships in Russia. DiRado was also the runner-up to Katie Ledecky in the Arena Pro Swim Series this year, and since Ledecky’s maintaining her amateur status, and plans to swim for Stanford starting this fall, DiRado won the keys to a BMW X-1.

•​​ How Katie Ledecky became the world’s most dominant swimmer

But the Stanford grad, who has a job waiting for her, has made it clear that no matter what, she’s finished with swimming after Rio.

3. Connor Jaeger and Conor Dwyer proved they’re here to race by swimming very smart opening events

Jaeger and Dwyer finished 1-2 in the 400-meter free, clinching a spot on a second Olympic team for both of them. But even more important than that is how they clinched these spots.

After the first 100 meters of the final, Jaeger was sitting in sixth place (out of eight), and Dwyer was cruising in third. While some swimmers may panic and speed up, both stayed calm and slowly picked off fellow swimmers, knowing they had closing speed to rely on—especially Jaeger.

•​ Analyzing the U.S. men’s gymnastics team 

This event isn’t either swimmer’s premiere event. Jaeger often swims the mile, while Dwyer excels in the 200-meter event (Jaeger swam the 1500 at the 2012 Olympics, and Dwyer was part of the gold-medal winning 4x200 relay). Yet with both swimmers peaking at the ideal time, they’ll be representing the U.S. in Rio.

4. The highly anticipated showdown between Dana Vollmer and Kelsi Worrell will live up to expectations

Vollmer, eyeing her third Olympic team after giving birth in March 2015, easily won her heat in 56.90 in the 100-meter fly semifinals, and Worrell won the second heat close behind her, in 57.12. The two top female butterfliers in the U.S. still have yet to go head-to-head in an event, but their swims Sunday confirmed that it will not disappoint. 

Vollmer, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter fly, retired in 2013 (but didn’t pull her name out of the drug-test pool in case of a comeback), and sure enough, late in her pregnancy she decided to get back into the pool as soon as possible. Fifteen months later, she’s crushing the most core-heavy stroke in swimming. 

•​​ How a hiatus helped Caeleb Dressel smash U.S. records

Worrell, who swims for Louisville, has been crushing it at the NCAA level. She won 2015 and ’16 NCAA titles in the 100- and 200-yard butterfly, and became the first female to swim the 100-yard fly in under 50 seconds in 2015. This year, Worrell could be the university’s first swimming Olympian, and second Olympian ever (behind Angel McCoughtry). In the preliminary heats Sunday morning, she approached world-record pace in her first lap, but cruised to the finish.

5. An unexpected American record falls

Kevin Cordes had quite an eventful day, and he hasn’t even raced in finals yet. First, in the 100-meter breaststroke preliminaries, Cordes swam 59.05, the second-fastest time in the world this year. Then in the semifinals, Cordes upped the ante and set an American record in the 100-meter breaststroke, swimming 58.94 and passing Eric Shanteau’s suited record of 58.96 from 2009. 

The Arizona swimmer, who just missed out on the Olympic team in 2012, has now established himself as the man to beat in this event. One of his semifinal competitors? Reece Whitley, the 16-year-old SI Sportskid of the Year.

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