OMAHA, Neb. -- The biggest show in American swimming has once again come to the Heartland, where more than 1,800 swimmers will compete for one of a maximum 52 spots on the U.S. Olympic team that will compete in Rio de Janeiro in August. Expect fireworks. Waterfalls. Tears of sadness. Tears of joy. And a ton of fast swimming.
"It's the Super Bowl of swimming," said Conor Dwyer. "There's no meet like this in the world -- and I think a lot of foreigners are even jealous that we get to compete in such an amazing atmosphere."
The meet will take place inside Omaha's Century Link Center, where a 10-lane competition pool has been erected on the arena floor, allowing for a raucous environment with 14,000 fans surrounding the competition on all sides. Every session of the event has been sold out for weeks.
"There's more pressure here than there is at the Games," Michael Phelps said Saturday. "Nobody is a shoo-in. Nobody is a lock."
With that, here are eight questions about the upcoming competition:
How do swimmers make the team for Rio?
The top male and female finisher in each of the 26 events -- and the top four in the 100- and 200-meter freestyle -- will automatically earn a spot on the Olympic team. After that, the second-place finishers in all events, and fifth and sixth in the 100 and 200 free, will be added to the team should spots remain. A maximum of 26 men and 26 women can be named to the team, but swimmers often qualify in multiple events. The 2012 London team, for example, featured 49 members.
What should we expect from Phelps?
Most comebacks in swimming tend to fail, especially after the age of 30. But last summer at U.S. Nationals in San Antonio, Phelps swam the fastest time in the world in 2015 in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly. That jaw-dropping performance prompted some lofty goals for Phelps' last Olympic run, including hints at chasing a personal-best time, something Phelps hasn't clocked since 2009. Though Phelps' performance in-season has been inconsistent this year, the goals haven't changed. Phelps is certain to swim the 100- and 200-meter fly, as well as the 200 IM. He is also entered in the 100 and 200 free, but wouldn't commit to either when asked about his schedule Saturday. "We're still kind of playing it by ear," he said. "I might be doing the free, I might not."
Being a new father has to be a distraction, and Phelps has admitted his weight is lighter than he would like, but he is in some of the best physical shape of his career and is relying on that training to pay off when it matters most this week. Should Phelps qualify for Rio, he will become the first American male swimmer to make five Olympic teams.
How will Katie Ledecky handle the pressure of being considered arguably the best swimmer in the world?
With the same seemingly robotic style she has in the water -- unflappably. There doesn't seem to be a whole lot that fazes Ledecky, who became the first woman to sweep the 200-, 400-, 800- and 1500-meter freestyle races last summer at the world championships in Kazan, Russia. At an in-season Pro Series meet in Austin, Texas, in January, she broke her own world record in the 800 with a time of 8:06.68, nearly 12 seconds faster than anyone else in the world. In a recent article in The Washington Post, a Mayo Clinic researcher suggested she is the most dominant athlete in the world today. In any sport. The question isn't whether or not Ledecky will perform well in Omaha, it's how well.
Ryan Lochte in the 400 IM? Isn't he, like, old?
Of the 100 entrants for the 400 individual medley on the opening day of competition, no one is as old as 31-year-old Lochte. In fact, Lochte has four years on the next oldest entrant, 27-year-old Swim Mac teammate Tyler Clary. Lochte hasn't competed in the event internationally since winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics, and for the past year has told anyone who will listen how grueling and painful it is to train for the event. Yet here he is competing in the 400 IM yet again.
Why? It might be his best chance at a medal in Rio, as the U.S. has not lost the event at the Olympics since 1992 and Lochte has the fourth-fastest qualifying time in the U.S. But it's also a risk. The 400 IM can zap a swimmer of his or her energy, hurting the athlete later in the meet. "If he's the best guy to have on the block for the USA, then he ought to be the guy we try to have on the blocks," said Lochte's coach, David Marsh. "If not, then we will know in a couple days."
Why haven't you mentioned Missy Franklin, one of the biggest stars from the London Games?
Franklin's in-season performances have been inconsistent over the past year, but she and coach Todd Schmitz insist she is ready for trials. Schmitz said Franklin has been like a "caged animal" during her taper and Franklin herself said Saturday that a two-hour flight delay to Omaha had her "about to burst." Franklin has certainly been overshadowed by the success of Ledecky, making it easy to forget that she is still the top seed in the 200-meter backstroke and second seed in the 100 back.
Who are some swimmers you might not know yet but should?
Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Murphy, Simone Manuel (pictured) and Maya DiRado. This list could go on -- the depth in the American pool is that great. But these are four names to watch, not only in Omaha, but perhaps Rio, as well. Dressel, just 19, is arguably the brightest young sprinter in the country. He set American and NCAA records in March in both the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle and owns the six fastest American times in the 50 free.
Another college star, Murphy, 20, finished fifth in the 200-meter backstroke in Kazan and enters trials after setting American records in the 100 and 200 back at NCAAs. Manuel, another sprinter, finished eighth in the 50 free in Kazan and subsequently took a year off from Stanford to focus on long-course training. And then there's DiRado, 23, who appears to be freed by her decision to retire and begin a career as a business analyst in September and is the top seed in the 200 and 400 individual medley.
What will be the best race to watch in Omaha?
That's like trying to pick a favorite Steph Curry crossover. Forced to pick one, I'd say the women's 200 free. It is here where sprinters and distance swimmers often collide, and the U.S. has seven swimmers (Ledecky, Allison Schmitt, Leah Smith, Melanie Margalis, Franklin, DiRado, Manuel) ranked in the top 30 in the world in 2016, led by Ledecky's 1:54.43 in Austin in January. Schmitt won gold in London. Ledecky won gold in Kazan. Franklin medaled at both. Even qualifying for the final of this race will be an accomplishment.
OK, give us some numbers about trials
1,885: The total number of entrants who qualified to compete at trials.
52: Maximum number of Olympic spots available.
48: The number of states represented (all but Alaska and Wyoming).
843: The number of cities represented, including a high of 56 from Austin, Texas.
13: Age of the youngest qualifiers. There are seven 13-year-olds who will compete.
36: Age of the oldest qualifier, Ed Moses, who qualified for the 100 breast, saying he practiced just twice in four years.
894,550: Total number of meters (pre-scratch) that will be swum during the eight-day event. That's just under 556 miles.