Omaha's bid to get the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials for a third time resembles one of last summer's Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte showdowns in the CenturyLink Center pool.
But in this case, there are three competitors coming down to the wire — Omaha, San Antonio and St. Louis.
It's stiff competition, and the city picked today to host the 2016 Trials will walk away knowing it was hard-earned, said Harold Cliff, Omaha Sports Commission president.
“We certainly didn't sit back and say we're going to do the same as last time because it worked,” Cliff said of Omaha's bid. “We made a very concerted effort to demonstrate how we were going to up the ante.”
Officials from all three cities said this week that they went all in to land the Trials. The city selected by USA Swimming will hold the meet to determine the American team for the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Currently, the race is too close to call.
“There are no tea leaves to read,” said George Block, chairman of the San Antonio Sports board of directors. “I'm sure Omaha and St. Louis feel the same way in that we did what we had to do, and now we'll wait and see what happens Saturday.”
USA Swimming is expected to name a winner during a live webcast at 5 p.m.
USA Swimming and Assistant Executive Director Mike Unger have done nothing to tip their hand toward a favorite, but three candidates — Indianapolis, Greensboro, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla. — have been eliminated from the initial list of six bidders.
“We want to respect their process and they have been very, very clear and forthright,” said St. Louis Sports Commission President Frank Viverito. “They've run a great bid process.”
St. Louis and San Antonio were among the cities intrigued by watching the Trials blossom in Omaha in 2008 and '12, and wondering about the potential to grow the event even more.
Both are proposing to take the event into a dome for the first time, creating the opportunity for single-session crowds to go from 14,000 to the 20,000 range. The unknown is whether the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis or Alamodome in San Antonio could replicate the intimacy and atmosphere created in the arena setting at the CenturyLink Center.
|Take a look back at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha.|
“What I will say is that the bar is set really high, and we've been incredibly impressed with that event there,” said Viverito, who attended both of the Trials in Omaha.
Block said the San Antonio bid came with “some new ideas and some things we thought we could do different from Omaha,” as far as facility size, organization structure, relationships and the area nearby the Alamodome. The city also had to look for its weaknesses after falling just short in its pursuit of the 2008 Trials (USA Swimming negotiated exclusively with Omaha for 2012).
“We had to be a little bit different,” said Block, a former vice president for USA Swimming. “But, frankly, we did look at what a great job Omaha did and the platform that (Omaha) and USA Swimming built there.”
Block said San Antonio would configure the Alamodome as it did when the Spurs played basketball there from 1993 to 2002 and when the facility hosted an NBA All-Star Game. It would list seating at 21,800.
Block said the remainder of the curtained-off venue would provide for a larger warmup pool and a sizable chunk of space for athlete and media services. As with St. Louis, it would place the AquaZone fanfest in its adjoining convention center.
San Antonio Sports has its offices in the Alamodome and was behind an “I'm In” campaign created to get the population and partners behind the effort. Block also said swimming is “huge” in a city that is home to the Alamo Area Aquatics Association club program and in a state that has several strong college teams.
Viverito said St. Louis also has been proactive in trying to generate community support, and is “getting a great response” from the corporate level. Its downtown dome would be designed to hold 18,000 to 20,000 for swimming — with the flexibility to expand — and Viverito said it actually would provide seating and sight lines similar to CenturyLink Center.
St. Louis is home to NFL, NHL and major league baseball teams, but also has hosted an NCAA Final Four, college football and other Olympic Trials.
“This is what we do and the city works very well for events like that,” Viverito said. “We're no stranger to this level of event.”
Because of the demand for the event, Cliff said Omaha realized right away the challenge it faced in getting it back. USA Swimming officials got a glimpse of how it might modify the preparation and delivery of the event in 2016 during a site visit in February, including some technological advancements and an expanded AquaZone that could be indoor-outdoor.
Cliff said it's good for swimming that so much attention is being paid to one event, and that it was a regular topic of conversation at the National Association of Sports Commissions Symposium this week in Louisville, Ky.
Now Omaha can only wait to see how it turns out.
“There's not much you can do about it,” Cliff said. “It's not like we can go lobby further for it. You make your best shot at it, then you can kind of sit back and wait out the results.”
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>> Video: See a time-lapse of the 2008 Swim Trials pool construction: