Changing of the guard at U.S. swimming Olympic trials

The giggler who became the sweetheart of the 1988 Seoul Games, Janet Evans, found her situation this week pretty comical. She was trying, quite in vain as it turned out, to recapture Olympic glory at age 40.


"There was a 16-year-old," the three-time gold medalist said of a swimmer two lanes over from her, "closer in age to Syd."

The mother of 5-year-old Sydney and 2-year-old Jake, Evans is not the only swimmer watching time pass before her eyes at the qualifying trials for the team that will go to the London Games.

Every four years, of course, a different U.S. team goes to the Olympics. But this year, a distinct changing of the guards could be under way.

Some veterans are facing strong challenges for the events they've dominated for several Olympic cycles. Natalie Coughlin, for example, has won 11 medals over the past two Games, but barely made it into Wednesday night's finals for her signature event, the 100-meter backstroke. She was seeded seventh in a field topped by the 17-year-old phenom, Missy Franklin.

Franklin was nothing if not gracious about the prospect of surpassing the much decorated Coughlin, saying Tuesday night it was going to be "awesome" racing in the lane next to her. Even if she were to beat the veteran, Franklin said, she certainly wasn't replacing her.

"I think it's impossible to take Natalie's spot," Franklin said, despite having a pretty good chance of doing just that. "I mean, she's the best women's swimmer the sport has ever seen and probably ever will, so she's done her job, and no one can really fill her spot."

The preliminary race Evans entered on Tuesday, the 400-meter freestyle, was similarly one in which a transition was underway. Evans was not expected to finish near the top, and she indeed landed on the other end — 80th place.

Another swimmer, Katie Hoff, the American record holder in the event, seemed a likely contender but instead finished 20th in the preliminaries, too low to qualify for the finals that night. Allison Schmitt, now training at NBAC as Hoff once did, went on to win the final and a ticket to London. Hoff's chance of going to a third Olympics are all but shot after Wednesday's poor showing in the 200 free — she said she's been battling a stomach bug all week — and her name is now found on heat sheets where the record holders are listed rather than the active competitors.


It was just four years ago that Hoff and her NBAC teammate

left these same trials as their sport's brightest stars. Hoff won five events, and seemed destined for a big Beijing performance. In the end, while Phelps went eight-for-eight in gold medals, Hoff settled for a silver and two bronze — something she and her supporters, unfairly or not, find themselves having to defend.

And Hoff has become something of a cautionary tale, cited when the subject of Franklin's fast rise comes up, of the burden of high expectations, or perhaps of how quickly someone's moment can pass.

"She's 23 years old and has won over 20 international medals," says Paul Yetter, her coach early on at NBAC, and once again in Naples, Fla. "She's a great swimmer, and I can see her going faster in the future."

Her Olympic hopes now dashed, Hoff said that other than always wanting to compete in the FINA Swimming World Cup, she doesn't know what's ahead for her.


"Obviously, everything just happened, so I haven't thought that far ahead," she said.

She won't have to go far for inspiration. Even as the trials have ushered out some of the sport's old guard, they have welcomed back swimmers who temporarily retired, by their own choosing or otherwise.

Brendan Hansen, 30, retired after Beijing, disappointed at his failure to win individual gold in two Games. But he came back, and after winning the 100 breaststroke Tuesday is headed to London. Meanwhile, Dana Vollmer, who failed to make it to Beijing, won the 100 butterfly on Monday to earn her ticket.

And then, there is Dara Torres, seemingly ageless but actually 45, who is back at trials trying for a sixth Games after retiring not once but twice.

Olympic team takes shape

These swimmers will go to London after coming in one and two in their Wednesday night events: Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma in the women's 100-meter backstroke; Matt Grevers and Nick Thoman in the men's 100 backstroke; Breeja Larson and Rebecca Soni in the women's 100 breaststroke.

Schmitt, already going to London after Tuesday night's 400-meter freestyle victory, advanced Wednesday in the 200 free. Schmitt had entered the semifinals as the top seed, posting a 1 minute, 58.02 seconds finish in the preliminaries.

Maryland swimmers on Wednesday:

NBAC's Annie Zhu qualified for the 200 IM semifinal by placing 16th in the morning preliminaries with a 2:15.75 time. Her teammates Willa Wang, Stephanie O'Toole and Felicia Lee failed to advance, as did former NBAC swimmer Rachael Schaffer.

In the 200 freestyle preliminaries won by NBAC's Schmitt, her teammates Camryne Morris and Gillian Ryan didn't qualify for the evening semifinals .

Chase Kalisz of NBAC and Loyola Blakefield and Princeton swimmer Oliver Bennett didn't advance from the 200 butterfly preliminaries.