Charlotte a training ground for 2012 Olympics

Updated: January 25, 2012, 3:32 PM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- For some Olympic hopefuls like American breaststroker Kevin Swander, the road to the 2012 London Games runs through Charlotte.

Athletes from around the world will compete in Charlotte this spring in three Olympic sports -- the modern pentathlon, canoe slalom and swimming at various sites.

The events serve as precursors and, in some cases, qualifiers for the 2012 Olympics.

The Modern Pentathlon World Cup, which is an Olympic qualifier, kicks off March 8-11 at facilities including the Grady Cole Center, Memorial Stadium and the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center. Then April 12-14, the Olympic trials for canoe slalom take to the rapids at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. Finally, the Charlotte UltraSwim hits the pool at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center May 10-13.

"As one of the last stops before the 2012 London Games, Charlotte demonstrates a keen ability to host events of an intense caliber and, in fact, no other U.S. destination will host this amount of Olympic activity leading up to the Olympic Games," Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tom Murray said Wednesday. "We're honored to welcome the Olympic spirit and will strive to make each event an unforgettable experience for the athletes, coaches, relatives and spectators drawn to the region."

The Charlotte UltraSwim has hosted more than 10,000 athletes like Swander over the past 27 years with approximately 130 going on to reach the Olympics and 50 winning gold.

This year's competition, which will be one of the last major stops before the Olympic team trials in Omaha, Neb., in July, is expected to feature 14-time gold medal winner Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Natalie Coughlin.

It would likely be Phelps' final meet at the UltraSwim event, one he's been participating in since he turned 14.

"This will be his swan song," said SwimMAC CEO Dave Marsh, whose Charlotte-based swim team will host the event.

Swander, a former All-American at Indiana and a member of the U.S. National team, is currently ranked 13th in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke. He is hoping to land a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad after overcoming two life-threatening strokes in 2004 and being "assaulted by 11 guys" outside a restaurant in 2008 that required him to have his face surgically repaired.

He fell short in his previous two attempts to qualify for the Olympics. He finished seventh in 2004 and fifth in 2008 in the 100-meter breaststroke.

Only the top two American finishers in the event will make the team, so Swander knows he's swimming an upstream battle.

But the 27-year-old is hoping the third shot at Olympic glory will be a charm.

Having been through the Olympic time trials before, Swander knows the importance of placing well at the Charlotte UltraSwim competition and the momentum it can build heading into the trials.

"It's a great event," Swander said. "It's one of the biggest meets of the year and everybody comes to it. Charlotte is a place almost everyone makes it a point to come to because it's a highly-competitive event. It's very similar to the Olympic trials in a lot of ways."

In 2004, Swander won the 100-meter breast national title at the ConocoPhillips National Championships, becoming the first Hoosier to bring home a national title since 1980.

The modern pentathlon is an event made up of five sports -- swimming, fencing, horseback riding, running and shooting.

More than 80 men and 60 women from more than 30 countries will compete in an event first introduced in the 1912 Olympic Games. While the sport celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year beginning in Charlotte, its origins are steeped in the original Greek Pentathlon dating back to 708 BC.

A first place finish at the Modern Pentathlon World Cup will automatically qualify a male and female athlete for the 2012 Olympics. Charlotte is the first leg of that four-stage event, with the other three points-based events following in Rio de Janeiro, Budapest and Moscow.

In the canoe slalom, speed is the key.

Now a regular Olympic fixture, the Olympic trials in Charlotte will feature disciplines including men's and women's Kayak and men's single and two-person Canoe. Drawing more than 100 athletes from the U.S. and Canada, a maximum of five athletes from each country will compete for the chance to represent their nation in London.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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