Trials are over, now the hard work begins for U.S. swim stars

Brooke Bennett's 800-free performance leads the way for a U.S. team that has room to improve, according to their coach  Credit: Donald Miralle/Allsport
INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, Aug. 17 (AFP) There were fireworks and balloons, team chants and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," but for the 48 U.S. swimmers who qualified for the Sydney Olympics, the end of the trials signaled the start of some hard work.

"We've got to improve," women's head coach Richard Quick said in his assessment of the women's team assembled at the eight-day meet. "We're ranked, I think, No. 1 in the world in one event going into the Olympics, I believe that's the 800-meter freestyle.

"The rest of the events we've got to improve to have a chance to win at the Olympic Games.

"I believe that we have the capability in many of these events, that we have the right to think about and prepare for a winning effort," he said. "But we will have to improve and swim better than we ever have in our lives to do that."

In addition to Brooke Bennett's superb 8:23.92 in the 800-meter free, 16-year-old Megan Quann posted the fastest time in the world this year in the 100-meter breaststroke of 1:17.12, but her personal best is still well outside South African Penny Heyns' world record of 1:06.52.

Jenny Thompson, trying to add her first individual Olympic gold medal to her five relay golds, will face stiff competition. She lowered her American record in the 100-meter free with a time of 54.07 here, but Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands set the world record of 53.80 in May.

Thompson will also be up against de Bruijn in the 100-meter fly. Since Thompson erased Mary T. Meagher's 18-year-old world mark at the Pan Pacific Championships last August, the Dutch swimmer has twice lowered the world record.

U.S. swimming officials were criticized in some quarters for holding the trials so close to the Games. Swimming competition starts in Sydney on Sept. 16.

"It's all about improvement," said men's head coach Mark Schubert. "Whatever happened here really won't be remembered. We're going to really focus on improvement in training camp, getting everybody to be excited about swimming faster than they did at the trials."

One of those who thought the trials should have been held earlier was Gary Hall Jr., who clocked the second-fastest time in history in setting an American record in the 50-meter freestyle.

Also among the national record-setters was 33-year-old Dara Torres in the 100-meter butterfly heats, Jenny Thompson in the 100-meter freestyle and 16-year-old Megan Quann in the 100 breaststroke.

Australian Olympic coach Don Talbot, who sat in on the U.S. trials, said it was an impressive performance.

"You're much stronger than we are in the women," Talbot said, adding that he thought the men's team "is probably swimming half a second better" than they did at the Pan Pacific Championships.

The decision to allow more than twice as many swimmers to compete as at the 1996 trials was another contentious issue, but Quick said it was good preparation for the chaos of the Games.

"To be honest, I think it helps you prepare for the Olympic Games," he said. "The athletes who survived the warm-up situation here are going to be ready."

Mark Schubert, the men's head coach, said it was harder to adjust to the eight-day meet, needed to accommodate the semi-final format that will be re-introduced at the Games.

"The most onerous thing was the eight days," he said. "It's hard to keep the enthusiasm and intensity for the whole thing. We have to get used to that."

The biggest U.S. swimming team since 1976 is an eclectic bunch. They range in age from 15-year-old butterflier Michael Phelps to 33-year-old Torres. It's the oldest women's team ever, and the youngest men's team since 1988.

In 1996, 19-year-old Tom Malchow was the only teenager on the men's side in Atlanta. This year there are eight, and the 200-meter butterfly world record-holder is one of the elder statesmen.

"The most encouraging thing is we've identified a lot of improvement," Schubert said. "We have a lot more depth than we had last year. We have returning veterans like Gary Hall swimming the 100 free again, that's very exciting.

"I think the team overall is a great combination of youth and experience."

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