Five Things to Watch at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials

American stars Caeleb Dressel and Katie Ledecky will face tough competition to qualify at the Trials, which will host an even deeper talent pool than the Olympics.
Ledecky is a near lock to qualify for multiple Olympic events, but she’s not the only American set to star in Paris.
Ledecky is a near lock to qualify for multiple Olympic events, but she’s not the only American set to star in Paris. / The Indianapolis Star-USA TODAY NETWORK

The most pressurized swim meet in the world is not next month at the Paris Olympics. It starts Saturday and will run through June 23 in Indianapolis. The U.S. Olympic Trials are where the talent is deepest and nerves most frayed, with about 1,000 swimmers battling for a total of 52 roster spots.

And just to juice up the stakes a little more, this year’s Trials meet has been moved into an NFL stadium. The scale has never been this grand.

Making the Olympic team is the ultimate career achievement in American swimming. After years of relentless training, the opportunity to fulfill improbable childhood dreams and cement lifetime legacies is hovering within reach (not to mention the necessary validation to stamp that legacy on your body in the form of an Olympic rings tattoo). But the competition is desperately fierce. Many accomplished and dedicated American swimmers don’t make the top two in an individual event or top six in a relay-selection event, which is what it takes to make the American Olympic team. 

For the athletes who withstand the pressure cooker of Trials, they tend to be far more relaxed and confident when taking on the world in the Summer Games. But surviving the crucible has to come first. The Trials are filled with tribulations.

“Pure terror and stress,” says 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic gold medalist Maya DiRado Andrews of her Trials experience that year. “It’s the most intense swim meet anyone will ever go to. But there is a benefit to Team USA. We walked into Rio and it was easy.”

Here are five story lines to watch as the intensity simmers in Indianapolis:

1. Dressel Watch

Right on time in the post-Phelps vacuum, sprinter Caeleb Dressel emerged as the biggest star of American swimming at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Dressel won three individual gold medals and two relay golds, and he was an eyeful to watch—explosively athletic, magnificently muscled, aggressively inked up and flashing a million-dollar smile.

This year, who knows? 

The last time the world saw Peak Dressel was in June 2022, when he was sitting astride a lane line in Budapest after winning his second gold medal in two swims at the world championships. Shortly thereafter he disappeared, dropping out of the meet with what was called a medical issue (coach Anthony Nesty later described it as a mental health situation). The 27-year-old hasn’t swam internationally since then, and even his domestic appearances have been few and far between. 

Dressel said he spent several months out of the water dealing with what happened in 2022 (he’s never disclosed any substantive detail). When he returned for U.S. national championships last summer he was a shadow of his formerly dominant self and did not make the world championship team. He’s progressed steadily in 2024 and should make the American team—but how big a part he plays is the great unknown.

“He’s trending the right way,” says NBC swimming analyst and Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines. “Caeleb, or someone like Caeleb, is absolutely critical for the U.S.—not just individually, but especially on relays.”

Caeleb Dressel celebrates after his relay team finishes first in a Tokyo Olympics event.
Dressel is a seven-time Olympic gold medalist, including five won at the Tokyo Games. / Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

This figures to be a young-in-key-spots American men’s team that will require several Olympic rookies to be major players. Some of them stepped up last year at the world championships, most notably Cal-Berkeley products Jack Alexy, Destin Lasco and Dare Rose, plus Chris Guiliano of Notre Dame and high schooler Thomas Heilman. 

After the American men won just three gold medals at the ’23 Worlds meet, there is a need for new speed on the roster. Or, perhaps, rejuvenated old speed.

“Someone needs to come out of the shadows,” Gaines says. “Or Caeleb needs to come out of the shadows. I just hope and pray he walks away from this summer with a smile on his face.”

Outside of Dressel, the big drama on the men’s side could center around Michael Andrew. The Tokyo Olympian is now 25 and has never fully delivered on the Next Big Thing tag he had in his teens and early 20s. Trained by his father, Peter, Andrew eschewed normal regimens in favor of sprint-centric workouts that made him a formidable racer in 50-meter events—but there is only one of those in the Olympics, in freestyle.

Andrew swam a big breaststroke leg for the U.S. team that won a dramatic gold medal in the 400 medley relay in Tokyo. But he didn’t make the 2023 World Championships team and could be hard-pressed to make the squad this time around. His best chances are likely in the 50 free and 100 breast.

2. Ledecky and the Everything Girls 

The U.S. women appear to be on more solid footing than the men, with legend-in-residence Katie Ledecky as the foundation. Now 27 and a lock to make her fourth Olympics, Ledecky remains America’s preeminent freestyler from 200 to 1,500 meters. She will be heavily favored in Paris to win the 1,500 and 800, but will be an underdog in the 400 and perhaps a long shot to hit the podium in the 200.

The rest of the cast is led by a group that could be called the Everything Girls, able to master a variety of strokes and distances. Virginia graduate Kate Douglass could win three disparate events in Indy, from the 100 freestyle to the 200 breaststroke to the 200 individual medley. Her Virginia teammates, sisters Gretchen and Alex Walsh, also could finish in the top two in multiple events. 

U.S. swimmer Kate Douglass poses for a photo in front of an American flag.
Douglass made her Olympic debut in Tokyo, where she won a bronze medal in the 200 IM, and she’s favored to do even better this summer. / Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Regan Smith is a heavy favorite to win three events (both the 100 and 200 backstroke and 200 butterfly) and could make the team in a fourth (100 fly). Torri Huske, who redshirted this year at Stanford, is seeded in the top four in four different events (50 free, 100 free, 100 fly and 200 IM). And teenager Katie Grimes might have the widest bandwidth of them all—she’s already made the Paris Olympic team in the 10k open water and is the top seed in the 400 IM, second to Ledecky in the 1,500 and fourth in the 800.

“The best women have always been very versatile,” says Stanford coach Greg Meehan, who was the head women’s coach for the U.S. team in Tokyo. “This group has more of them. With the competition for [Olympic] spots, the group that comes out of the gauntlet will be prepared for Paris.”

The most competitive women’s race could come Sunday night in the 100 butterfly, with Huske, Gretchen Walsh, Smith and Claire Curzan all seeded within a second of each other. Huske, Smith and Curzan were all Tokyo Olympians.

3. The biggest breakthrough candidate 

This is go time for Gretchen Walsh, who seems to have put a disappointing 2021 Olympic Trials performance as an 18-year-old behind her and is poised to have a huge summer. She’s incredibly long, standing 6’3”, and has a double-jointed flexibility that facilitates her considerable underwater speed. 

Walsh’s underwaters helped her rewrite the American short-course record book at the NCAA championships in March, turning in one of the great meets in college swimming history. Now she has to translate it from the short pool to the big one, where there are fewer turns and thus more time spent on the surface. She will be a threat to win the 50 and 100 frees and 100 fly, and could be a key relay cog in Paris if she puts it all together in Indy first.

4. The looming international threats 

The world has been getting progressively faster for some time now, nibbling away at the gap between the United States and everyone else. This Olympic year presents one of the most daunting challenges ever.

The best male swimmer on the planet, Léon Marchand, is from France (but trained in the U.S. by Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’s former coach). The best female swimmer on the planet, Summer McIntosh, is from Canada (but trained in the U.S. by the Sarasota Sharks club team). The most powerful group on the planet is the Australian women’s team, which could be favored to win eight golds in Paris.

And then there is the specter of China, which won six medals in Tokyo in 2021 after 17 of its swimmers tested positive for a banned substance months earlier. Those positive tests were not revealed until April of this year, which outraged much of the international swimming community—nowhere more than in the U.S., which had several of its athletes lose to the Chinese in Tokyo. Belief in the World-Anti Doping Agency (the global watchdog for performance-enhancing drugs) has plummeted at a key time.

“If I were still swimming, I would not believe the sport is clean,” says three-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel. “I don’t believe it’s a fair playing field. And I hurt for the athletes who are clean, who are supposed to be able to trust that WADA is the standard globally for ensuring clean sport.”

That topic assuredly will resonate in Indy.

“The closer it gets, the noisier it’s going to get,” says Meehan. “It will be really important for Team USA athletes to focus on what they can control, to keep the focus on ourselves.”

U.S. swimmers Alex Walsh, left, and her sister Gretchen Walsh
Alex Walsh, left, and her sister Gretchen are poised to make the Paris Olympics a family affair. / Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

5. Three sets of siblings on the Olympic team? 

Fans will see a lot of these three surnames over the course of this meet, in various races: Walsh, Foster and Shackell. The families could each send two swimmers to Paris.

The highest likelihood are the aforementioned Gretchen and Alex Walsh (Alex won a silver medal in the 200 IM in Tokyo). But the opportunity also exists for the Texas Aquatics duo of Carson and Jake Foster, and local Indianapolis products Alex and Aaron Shackell. 

Carson Foster, who agonizingly was caught from behind on the final lap of the 400 IM and finished third, missing the Tokyo team, is seeded first in the 400 IM, second in the 200 IM and second in the 200 fly. Older brother Jake is seeded second in the 200 breast and fourth in the 100 breast.

Teenager Alex Shackell of Carmel Swim Club is seeded fourth in the women’s 200 fly and fifth in both the 100 fly and 200 free. Her big brother Aaron is seeded fourth in the 400 free, sixth in the 200 free and seventh in the 200 fly. They should be in the mix for relay spots at the very least.


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Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who covers college football and college basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He cohosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Forde has won 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards, has been published three times in the Best American Sports Writing book series, and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, he lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were collegiate swimmers.