OMAHA, Neb. -- Katie Ledecky, whose own extraordinary standards are her sternest competition, is a one-woman metaphor for American swimming at the upcoming Rio Games.
Just as Ledecky is expected to win every time she dives in, at multiple freestyle distances, supremacy is assumed of the U.S. Olympic team. And that dominance has differed only by degree over the long haul. U.S. swimmers collected a combined 40 of the 100 gold medals available in Athens, Beijing and London, and 90 medals overall. Australia is the only nation within shouting distance, with 45 overall.
The thermostat gets turned up another notch after the crucible of the Olympic trials. An audience that tunes in every four years is conditioned by success, spoiled by a long, unbroken string of personable stars.
First-time Olympians will make up more than half of the Class of 2016, a slight uptick from four years ago. Of the 45 team members for the Rio Games, 30 are rookies. Several are solid medal contenders. The rest will face the usual challenge of avoiding the happy-to-be-there syndrome and racing rather than being athletic sightseers.
"I think there's some real strengths and there are some, I would say, significant challenges,'' said women's head coach David Marsh, whose SwimMAC Carolina contingent on the team includes 19-year-old Kathleen Baker in the 100-meter backstroke. "We're going to be counting on [veterans] to help fast-forward the younger swimmers so that it's not an Olympics of experience, but an Olympics of performance.''
For all the buzz about newcomers, continuity and first-name recognition also are assured. Five reigning gold medalists will be back in the blocks, and the sport's longest and flashiest rivalry lived to see another day.
Almost two years after bottoming out personally with a drunken driving arrest, Michael Phelps is poised to add to his record stockpile of 22 Olympic medals, qualifying for Rio 2016 in three individual events despite times that his coach -- and head Olympic men's coach -- Bob Bowman called "mediocre.'' Phelps' duel with Ryan Lochte in the 200 individual medley was the marquee race of the trials in Omaha and takes their glittery Olympic rivalry to a fourth continent.
Ledecky, the 800-meter champion as a 15-year-old in 2012, is still the youngest athlete on the team but has vaulted from obscurity to international prominence and now a prohibitive favorite in three events. Four-time gold medalist Missy Franklin, battle-scarred at 21, persevered and survived a volatile week in the pool and will swim three events in Rio.
Franklin said she tried her best not to measure herself against her brilliant summer of 2012, but still felt vulnerable when she arrived in Omaha. Her very public odyssey from amateur to pro, with its attendant disorientation and distraction, is one that many of her younger teammates may want to watch closely as more and more of them have a shot at extended careers.
"I think I thickened up my armor quite a bit this week, so moving forward, just very proud of that and excited to see where that toughness can lead me,'' she said.
Sprinters Nathan Adrian (50 and 100 freestyle, and 400 free relay) and Dana Vollmer (100 fly and 400 free relay) will return for their third and fourth Summer Games, respectively. At age 35, Anthony Ervin sent statisticians scrambling by making the cut in the 4x100 freestyle relay and the 50 free -- 16 years after he medaled in both in Sydney.
Inevitably, the trials culled senior leadership, as well. Missing from the Rio roster are 2012 backstroke gold medalists Matt Grevers (100 meter), who said he'll keep swimming while pursuing opportunities outside the pool, and Tyler Clary (200 meter), who retired after his last trials swim fell short. Veteran sprinter Jessica Hardy ended her competitive career, and iconic 12-time medalist Natalie Coughlin put hers on hold.
An eclectic group of rookies elbowed through the crowd to take their places, and they didn't come out of nowhere. Hardy was a formal mentor to several swimmers on the national junior team who are now Rio-bound, including Leah Smith (400 and 800 freestyle, and 800 free relay) and Olivia Smoliga (100 backstroke).
"It was a really hard team to make,'' Hardy said. "That talent came to fruition a lot sooner than I expected. It's going to be cool to see.''
Stanford graduate Maya DiRado, dynamic in the pool and possessed of a Zen aura outside it, won both individual medley events and the 200 backstroke to head into what she insists will be her first and last Olympics at age 23. On the other end of the emotive spectrum, DiRado's 20-year-old Stanford teammate Simone Manuel wept with joy on and off for 40 minutes after she qualified for the 100 freestyle.
"She has had the Olympics on such a pedestal, and at 19 years old you can build that up to something that maybe you don't have the emotional maturity to handle in the moment of racing,'' said Stanford head coach Greg Meehan, who was named to the Olympic women's team staff Sunday. Now that the pressure's off, I'm really excited to see her swim with some freedom.''
The men tasked with continuing the much-decorated U.S. tradition in backstroke include David Plummer, owner of the best 100-meter time in the world this year, a father of two with salt-and-pepper hair who at 30 is the oldest male swimmer to make an Olympic debut in nearly 100 years. Josh Prenot, part of a sizeable University of California contingent, blazed to the second-fastest 200 breaststroke of all time (2:07.17) in the trials final.
Yet roughly half of the winning times in Omaha lagged behind those of four years ago. Bowman and Marsh had little explanation other than the obvious -- the scope and smothering pressure of the meet, which can be just as hard on seasoned swimmers as green ones.
"The times I just went aren't going to cut it in Rio, and I've gotta figure that out," said Cal's Tom Shields, who qualified for the 100-meter butterfly behind Phelps in a final that was dramatic but not particularly fast. "I'm very aware of that, and I'm sure Michael is, too.''
As is their practice, neither Phelps nor Bowman offered any specifics on exactly what tweaks they'll make in the training period between now and Rio -- the time swimmers refer to as a double taper. But Phelps, like all of his teammates, needs to step down briefly from the emotional and physical summit of trials before he can eye a higher destination.
Marsh said he can divide the team into those who were relieved to make it and those who felt pure joy. "Relief is probably easier to get ready," he said.
Added Bowman: "One of the things that we have always done well, better than anyone else, is improve from the trials to the Games, and I'm confident we're going to do that again.''