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Hang around the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials for a few days, and you'll notice what Omaha's missing.
Listen to the introduction of the athletes in finals races or scan the clusters of swimmers in matching T-shirts, cheering on their teammates. They're from powerhouse swim clubs and universities in places like California, Florida, Maryland, South Carolina. Of the 1,800 swimmers in the meet, you can count the number from Nebraska on one hand.
And those shiny new 50-meter pools built for the event at the CenturyLink Center? They're not ours — at least not yet. For now, there are only a half-dozen long-course pools in the state.
In a city that has now twice hosted the country's biggest swimming event, the sport is still finding its footing.
Local coaches saw their teams grow, at least slightly, after 2008. They said it's tough to gauge how much of it was because of the Trials, but they have no doubt that at least some of the swimmers watched Michael Phelps and company compete in Omaha and decided to sign up.
Lynn Weaver, who coaches the Sarpy County Swim Club and the combined Papillion-La Vista and Papillion-La Vista South high school teams, said membership in the Sarpy club went up by about 20 percent after the first Trials in Omaha. The club has swimmers from elementary school through college age.
Most of those new swimmers stuck around. Weaver said it looks like this year's event could create a similar spike.
“I've already had people calling me since this thing started, wanting to know when they could try out,” he said.
Docker Hartfield, head coach of the Swim Omaha club and the Ralston High School teams, said it's important to get more swimmers signed up at all levels — high schools, recreational leagues, neighborhood clubs. But he said the thing holding Omaha back is that many swimmers and their families see high school, or maybe college, as the end of the line for swimming.
“You think of your own backyard, your own school district … we need to have a more global approach,” Hartfield said.
Most elite swimmers are part of clubs affiliated with USA Swimming, like Swim Omaha. Those swimmers train year round, usually working out twice a day. Hartfield said they'll spend more time with a coach in one year than most high school swimmers do in three.
If Omaha is going to start producing top swimmers, Hartfield said, coaches at all levels need to do a better job of working together and helping swimmers with a shot at a swimming career.
Bob Steele, a Washington-based consultant for USA Swimming, said Omaha could learn from other communities' models.
One good example, he said is Indiana, which operates a camp every year for the best 11- to 14-year-olds in the state.
Steele said it's also crucial to set up associations for coaches at every level, something Hartfield said is in the discussion stage in Omaha.
Then, there's the shortage of facilities that can support high-level swimming. Most pools in the area are what's called “short course” — 25 yards in length and often only a few lanes in width. Elite racing, however, is done in long-course pools, which are 50 meters in length and usually have space for at least eight lanes. The competition pool at the CenturyLink Center has 10 lanes.
Omaha has three 50-meter pools, at Hitchcock Park, the Jewish Community Center and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Each has its own set of limitations for the local swimming community, ranging from scheduling problems at UNO to a shallow design and limited gutters at the Jewish Community Center. “We equate it to swimming in the ocean, when there's a full practice,” said one swimmer at the Jewish Community Center.
After the Trials conclude, however, one of the two pools built for the event will be dismantled and then rebuilt in Omaha as part of a planned Omaha Multisports Complex. The specifics, including the location, of the project are still in the works.
Swimmers and coaches are hoping the complex will be large enough to host major national meets.
Ryan Miksch, an 18-year-old swimmer from Columbus, Neb., who competed in two events at the Trials, said he thinks keeping one of the pools from the meet will be “huge” for Omaha.
In the lead-up to the Trials, Miksch commuted regularly to Omaha to train. But before that, he rarely had the opportunity to practice in the type of pool he sees for big competitions.
Brendan Zubrod, a 25-year-old Omaha swimmer who didn't make the cutoff for the Trials, said he's seen plenty of friends look elsewhere when it was time to boost their careers.
“A lot of the people who have come out of Nebraska and made Trials have made Trials after they left Nebraska,” he said.
If they start sticking around, it could have a trickle-down effect. While many local swimmers will go on to swim at college — Hartfield estimates that about a quarter that come out of Swim Omaha will keep swimming after high school — very few are on the Olympic track.
In the past decade, the only Nebraskans to swim in the Olympics have come from other parts of the state: Scott Usher of Grand Island swam for the U.S. in the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. Adam Mania, who swam at Beatrice High School, competed for Poland in the 2004 Games.
Miksch said having more good swimmers around helps push everyone.
“When you have a lot of high-level swimmers together, the attitude, the atmosphere is really positive,” he said.
Sure, it's nice to hear your hometown represented in the Olympics, but why should Omaha care if it's a swimming town?
“Soccer? Football? Not everybody can play those sports that wants to. Swimming is another venue for kids to become athletic, to be at their highest level,” said Steele of USA Swimming.
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