OMAHA, Neb. (AP) USA Swimming knew it wanted to return to Omaha for the Olympic trials in 2020 and it didn't seek or accept bids from other potential host cities, interim executive director Mike Unger said Monday as he announced the event would be back in Nebraska's largest city for the fourth straight time.
Fueled by the rise of superstar Michael Phelps, the trials have evolved into a spectacle since first coming to Omaha in 2008. All 15 sessions of the 2016 trials at the CenturyLink Center sold out, and attendance topped 200,000 for the first time.
''Bringing the Olympic trials back to Omaha has always been our priority, as the city of Omaha, the Omaha Sports Commission and the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority have worked diligently to make this arguably the best swimming event in the world and one of the premier events in all of sports,'' Unger said.
About 1,800 swimmers will qualify for the trials, where they'll compete for spots on the U.S. team that will compete in the Tokyo Games. Unger said the tentative dates for the trials are June 21-28. The Olympics start July 24.
Omaha won bidding for the 2016 trials over St. Louis and San Antonio.
Well before the '16 trials, Unger said, USA Swimming hoped to come back to Omaha in 2020. Unger declined to name other cities interested in hosting the trials, but he said he told them that Omaha was the preferred choice. Those cities and USA Swimming agreed it wouldn't be worth the effort to have a bidding process for 2020.
The trials have become as much a show as a high-stakes competition since Omaha began hosting. Shooting flames and fireworks are part of the production when winning swimmers touch the wall or are receiving their medals. At the adjacent convention center, fans mill around an ''Aqua Zone'' featuring swim-related activities and appearances by past Olympic greats.
It's almost certain the 2020 trials will be the first in Omaha without Phelps. Unger said he's not concerned about interest waning without the 23-time gold medalist.
''There is a culture of excellence within our athletes and our national team, and that culture of excellence is pervasive,'' he said. ''You might have athletes whose names you might not have known in 2008 or 2012, but they made their marks in '16. The same thing is going to be true going forward. This is an event that has national appeal. People who know swimming, they come to the trials.''
There had been some speculation that the trials wouldn't return after Omaha-based Mutual of Omaha ended its major sponsorship of USA Swimming in February. Unger said picking a site for the trials and sponsorships are not intertwined, though he called Mutual of Omaha's decision a ''shock.''
''We always wanted to stay,'' he said. ''This is the best city for us.''