OMAHA — At the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, there is little room for error and, in some ways, less space to hide.
After finals races, those who don’t finish in the top two to make the Olympic team aren’t stopped for post-race TV interviews on the pool deck.
Instead, they trudge or limp past a green and gold flip-flop that will soon be autographed by those who have beaten them and made the Rio squad (in 2012, the canvas was a British phone booth).
Just beyond that is a U.S. Olympic backdrop with the hashtag #RoadtoRio.
And then, just before the swimmers descend two sets of seven-step metal staircases and out of view, they pass below another U.S. Olympic banner including a mini airplane. Presumably, the flight is headed to Rio de Janeiro.
These world-class athletes, many of whom have just failed in a four-year quest, must collect themselves in the minute or so between surfacing from the pool and reaching the end of those stairs.
At the bottom, they emerge from beside a small black curtain. They have now reached what’s called the mixed zone, the only area where both the athletes must pass as they exit the pool and the media are allowed access.
Many of these swimmers have decided in this short time span how to present themselves after not qualifying for the hardest team to make in the world.
“It’s really tough,” Missy Franklin said after finishing seventh in the 100m backstroke, an event she won at the 2012 London Olympics but will not race in Rio.
“I think I’m a little stunned,” Matt Grevers said after finishing third in the men’s 100m backstroke, an event he won in London but will not race in Rio.
“I know I could have done better,” Ryan Lochte said after finishing fourth in the 200m freestyle. He was the top American in the event in London, also fourth, but will not race it individually in Rio.
Lochte did, however, qualify for Rio in the 4x200m freestyle relay pool.
“I made it,” were among Lochte’s first words off that metal staircase. “I’m going to Rio.”
Not yet booked are Franklin, Grevers or 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, who was eighth in the 100m back. Tuesday night saw a chunk of the 11 active individual U.S. Olympic swimming gold medalists come up short, but they will get more chances later this week.
Combined, Franklin, Coughlin, Lochte and Grevers own 104 Olympic and long-course world championships medals, with 57 of them gold.
Franklin, the four-time 2012 Olympic gold medalist who wants to become the most decorated female swimmer ever, came into this meet unsatisfied with the first half of her year. And largely the last two years since suffering back spasms at the August 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.
She was sluggish, rushed and nervous in her first two races here, the 100m backstroke preliminaries and semifinals. Coach Todd Schmitz hoped that Tuesday night’s schedule, having a 200m freestyle semifinal and then the 100m backstroke final 23 minutes later, would ease her. There was no time to worry. Just swim, recover and swim again.
Franklin swam well in the 200m freestyle, qualifying fourth into the final in an event she won at the 2013 World Championships. Franklin is no longer a favorite to make the Olympic team individually in the 200m free (Katie Ledecky and Leah Smith are), but Tuesday night’s result portends she will qualify for the Olympic team in the 4x200m free relay Wednesday night, as Lochte did.
“Right now I need to make the team,” Franklin said. “In whatever way.”
That would be a shocking statement for anyone to read if they haven’t followed Franklin since the 2012 Olympics, or better yet since she won six gold medals at the 2013 World Championships.
She has not been the same since the 2014 back spasms, and increased preventative care since, and transition from college to professional swimmer with a move from California back to her parents’ basement in Colorado in spring 2015.
She earned zero individual gold medals at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and 2015 World Championships, though she had gritty efforts for silver and bronze and encouraging relays.
Franklin said Tuesday night that she’s feeling more pressure than ever before.
“There’s more expectation,” Schmitz said of the now-professional Franklin, who has sponsors including GoPro, Minute Maid, Speedo, United, Visa, Wheaties, plus a book to be published for the Christmas season. “You know what, in 2012, there wasn’t commercials playing on the jumbotron like there is now.”
Frankin’s seventh-place time in the 100m back — 1:00.24 — was well off her 2015 World Championships best of 59.40. But 59.40 would have gotten her fourth place Tuesday night.
Earlier, Schmitz said he saw “the signature Missy” at the end of her 200m freestyle semifinal, the most encouraging sign of her Trials so far. She made up three tenths of a second on third-place Allison Schmitt in the final 50 meters.
“The good thing is that it’s only day three,” Schmitz said. “She’s got three more days of swimming. We’ve got three really good events coming up. We’re still rolling.”
Those events are the 200m free, where, again, Franklin is the fourth seed going into the final and not a favorite for an individual Olympic spot.
Then there’s the 100m free, which has always been the weakest of Franklin’s four events.
And finally the 200m backstroke, which is Franklin’s signature event. She is the world-record holder and 2015 World silver medalist.
“She has the ability to go into game mode and out of game mode,” Schmitz said. “Is she disappointed? Of course she is. There’s disappointment that can motivate you, which is different from the disappointment where you’re sulking around.”
Lochte was not sulking but limping after he made it past the flip-flop, hashtag and airplane, down the stairs and emerged from the black curtain.
The pain from an off-and-on groin injury that flared up Sunday was at “a seven or eight” out of 10.
Lochte gathered to smile and repeat a few times that he was proud to make the most elite team in the world.
“That time (1:46.62) was really bad for me,” he said (Lochte’s 2015 Worlds semifinal time of 1:45.36 would have won Tuesday). “I know I could have done better, but I’m proud I made the team.”
Would he have been disappointed with fourth place had he been healthy?
“I’m representing my country at the highest stage in sports, it’s a beautiful feeling,” Lochte answered, again not giving away frustration, if there was any.
This is certain: Lochte feels from different than in 2004, when he also finished fourth in the 200m free at Trials but was ecstatic to make his first Olympic team as a relay-only swimmer (he later made the Athens team in the 200m individual medley, which he will also hope to do here Friday).
“I feel great, but still kind of shocked,” Lochte, then 19, said in 2004, according to his hometown newspaper in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I’ve been waiting for this since I first started swimming.”
Coughlin and Grevers are more familiar than Franklin or Lochte with not making the top two.
Coughlin, who shares the U.S. Olympic female record of 12 medals that Franklin chases, was third in the 100m back at the 2012 Trials and sixth in the 100m freestyle. She went to London as a relay-only swimmer.
Her hopes this week are down to the 50m and 100m freestyles, where she is not favored to finish in the top two.
Grevers, after a breakout 100m back silver at the 2008 Beijing Games, failed to qualify for major international meets in 2010 and 2011.
The 100m back is the only individual event he has ever contested at a world championships or Olympics. Grevers is not injured like Lochte. He hasn’t had especially frustrating recent years like Franklin or Coughlin.
Grevers was near his best in this Olympic cycle in Omaha. He simply got beat by faster swimmers Tuesday.
Ryan Murphy and David Plummer swam 52.26 and 52.28. Grevers’ fastest time since the 2012 Olympics is 52.54.
Of the Olympic champions who came up short Tuesday, Grevers appeared the most emotionally affected. Or at least he chose to present himself that way more than the others.
“I think if I let it sink in,” he said, “I’ll be more distraught than I currently am.”