Before preparing their bid for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, Omaha officials contacted 15 swimmers and asked if they would write short remarks that the city could include in its package to USA Swimming.
Omaha Sports Commission President Harold Cliff said Friday that the support turned out to be almost overwhelming.
All 15 swimmers took part, including 11-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte. They provided anywhere from a few sentences to a half-page of comments.
“We did not tell them what to say,” Cliff said. “We just said, 'Would you mind commenting?' And the quotes were phenomenal.
“Without exception, they were overly complimentary to Omaha as a city, to the event and to the support they received here. We used every one.”
It would be hard to quantify how much those words helped, but the voices no doubt were heard as USA Swimming two weeks ago decided to come back to Omaha and the CenturyLink Center for the 2016 Trials.
On Friday, Cliff and Mike Unger, the assistant executive director for USA Swimming, met to officially sign the contracts for 2016 at the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Among those present was Mayor Jim Suttle, who called it “an awesome day” for Omaha and said the reception for swimmers and fans will be even greater in three years when the city adds new Marriott and Hyatt hotels and other amenities downtown.
Unger said he likely will hear more reaction this weekend during a Grand Prix event in Charlotte, N.C. He said the last swimmer he spoke to was Olympian Clark Burckle in late April, after USA Swimming had decided on Omaha but not yet taken the recommendation to its board of directors for approval.
“He knew what the (finalist) cities were, but I didn't tell him anything,” Unger said. “He said to me, 'Don't mess with a good thing.'”
A record 1,800 swimmers were at CenturyLink Center for the 2012 Trials last summer. Omaha also hosted in 2008. Swimmers regularly praised both the setup and atmosphere at the venue, where temporary pools are placed in both the arena for competition and the convention center for warmups.
Unger said Frank Busch, the U.S. national team director, was supportive through the process as USA Swimming narrowed an initial field of six down to three, and then picked Omaha over San Antonio and St. Louis. But he also knew how Busch felt about Omaha from visiting regularly with him during last year's eight-day meet.
Because Busch had not seen bids, been on site visits or taken part in negotiations or discussions, he asked only to be kept abreast of the situation, telling Unger: “You guys make the right decision and we'll make it work.”
Unger did not tip Busch off in the final days before the announcement, but Busch might have been able to read between the lines in a conversation.
“I said, 'I think you'll be OK with our recommendation,'” Unger said. “That's all I said to him.”
Cliff said Busch's one request in 2012 was that Omaha provide an energy and environment to prepare the American team for the Summer Olympics a few weeks later.
Former U.S. national team coach Mark Schubert had made the same request in 2008.
Cliff said Omaha will promise the same in 2016 as the Americans go from Omaha to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Games.
“If somebody can't handle the pressure in Omaha, then they're not likely to handle it when Rio comes,” Cliff said. “Make it a true test. Do what you need to do to generate the excitement and set the stage for the best to rise to the top and perform. And those are exactly the words anyone who is organizing these events wants to hear.”
Unger said one of the hardest things he's had to do was calling St. Louis and San Antonio officials two weeks ago to tell them the news before USA Swimming made its announcement.
“All the cities did an awesome job of stepping up through the bid process and presenting their cities in a first-class way,” he said. “It was a wonderful process with a very tricky, very hard decision. But we made the right decision.”
NOTES: Unger said the likely dates in 2016 will be either July 4 through 11 or July 3 through 10. That's pushed back some from 2012 (June 25 through July 2) because of a later start to the Summer Games in Rio. That also will provide a little more “breathing room” between the College World Series and the Trials. ... Ticket sales will begin about a year before the event, Unger said, with prices staying comparable to 2012. … Omaha again will host a test event in June 2016, but likely smaller and shorter than the Mutual of Omaha Swimvitationals held in 2008 and '12.
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