Swimming Into History

Dive head first into a preview of the 2024 Olympic Swimming Trials hosted in Indianapolis.
Photography by Mike Botkin/Indianapolis Monthly

HISTORY WILL be written again in Indianapolis. The 2024 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, to be held June 15–23, will change the way these trials are conducted from now on, much the same way Super Bowl XVLI, held in Indianapolis in 2012, changed the path of that event forever.

The most obvious shift is happening in the presentation of the event, with three swimming pools—a 10-lane, 50-meter competition pool and two warmup pools—built inside Lucas Oil Stadium to allow the event to take advantage of the venue’s 30,000-seat capacity (with the pools installed), potentially more than doubling the size of the sellout crowd of 14,000 it saw in Omaha in 2020. It comes as no surprise that Indiana Sports Corp is behind this unprecedented evolution.

“This will be the largest swim meet ever,” said USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey at a recent media first-look ceremony at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“This event will set a new standard for audiences and athletes,” adds Eric Neuburger, Lucas Oil Stadium director. “And hopefully we will see some records fall, but I know one record we will set. We will set a new record and a new bar for what is possible for USA Swimming and the Olympic Swimming Trials.”

“It was ISC’s job to figure out a way to make it a great event. So, it was decided to make downtown into a swimming campus,” says Sarah Myer, chief of staff and strategy for ISC and one of three female leaders working behind the scenes to make the trials happen.

Ashleigh Newbold, VP of engagement for ISC, oversees “all things Georgia Street.” During the 2012 Super Bowl, the Georgia Street area experience set the stage for innovative fan involvement in Indy. This event will follow the same model. “I have fun in whatever I do,” Newbold says. “It’s a lot of work, and I’m super motivated. It’s fun to see our team so excited.”

The team Newbold is speaking of is the now-legendary legions of volunteers from Indianapolis and surrounding areas that show up whenever big events come to town. Newbold’s planning team alone consists of 300 volunteers, and that isn’t counting the hundreds more working in the trenches at the events.

Shana Ferguson, chief commercial officer of USA Swimming, a former swimmer at the United States Naval Academy herself, is the high-energy person who directed, among other things, the volunteers working inside the stadium and the installation of the pools and digital timing systems. “There are 1,000 volunteers working just in meet preparation,” she says. “There are 75 lifeguards alone.”

“[Leading up to the meet], all is going great,” Ferguson says. “I’m sure there will be some snags along the way, but we are committed to delivering a technically flawless meet. That’s my goal. It’s a lot of planning and we never dreamed of this before, but there are a lot more opportunities.”

The idea of hosting the 2024 trials at Lucas Oil was introduced in 2019. The world was at the beginning of the pandemic, and Hinchey, who was at the time new in his role as CEO of USA Swimming, and Scott Davison, president and CEO of OneAmerica Financial, sat down at Harry & Izzy’s “over a nice glass of wine,” according to Davison. Davison floated the idea, and Hinchey loved it. He thought having the event in the home of the Colts, the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship, Super Bowl XVLI, and the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Final Four would provide greater exposure for USA Swimming.

“It’s all about taking risks,” says Myer.

In July 2020, ISC put together a bid for the event. “We were all working from home at the time. It is a big event, so it was a group project over Zoom. We didn’t know if events were going to come back or even if fans would want to come back out ever again. But we built the event from the ground up,” Myer explains. Neuburger echoes those thoughts, “There were a lot of unique challenges to overcome. But we looked at those as barriers to overcome and overcame them.”

Some are calling this the “Meet of the Century” because of the increased seating capacity and exposure. This meet is the seventh time Olympic swimming trials have been held in Indianapolis, with the IUPUI Natatorium hosting swimming or diving trials in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2008. Swimmers at events have included Rowdy Gaines, Tracy Caulkins, and Matt Biondi, and, in 2000, a little-known, 15-year-old athlete from Maryland, Michael Phelps, who qualified for his first Olympics by finishing second in the 200-meter butterfly.

The history between this event and Paris, France, where the Olympics will take place this year, and Indianapolis goes back 100 years. The 1924 Olympic trials were held at the massive pool at Broad Ripple Park—the largest in-ground pool in the world at the time, drawing visitors from around the country, even the world. To put its size in perspective, the Broad Ripple pool held 4.5 million gallons of water. All three pools in Lucas Oil hold a total of 2 million gallons combined.

The pool in Broad Ripple is long gone, replaced in some respects by The Riviera Club nearby, or Rivi, as it’s commonly known—which boasts one of the largest pools in the Midwest at 1.29 million gallons of water—but there are still traces of the concrete that were just too massive to remove remaining in the park.

But the lore of the athletes who competed is brought back to life by this centennial anniversary. Of note are Johnny Weissmueller, who won three gold medals in Paris and later portrayed Tarzan in 12 motion pictures, and Hawaiian swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, who won a silver in the 100-meter freestyle, backing up his two gold medals from the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, and is credited with introducing the world to the flutter kick. Kahanamoku is also known for popularizing surfing outside of Hawaii.

“This is the most meaningful event I have worked on,” says Myer. “Our idea to grow the sport and galvanize the community at the same time is a challenge. Delivering on high-level expectations [is] great, and that’s a commitment. And to know that I have that responsibility is a little daunting. I’ve had dreams about it for over a year. You just want to overachieve. It’s such an honor to do this kind of work.”

“We started in January 2020, and I’m ready for this event to start,” says Newbold. “I’m going to enjoy the ride over the nine days of the competition and then take some time off.”