Scott Fowler

For 8 Darwinian days, these Charlotte swimmers try to become Olympians

For four years, they have been preparing for this summer.

For four years, they have put life on hold, pursuing a dream framed in chlorine and etched in gold.

In the next few days, they get to find out if the 2016 Olympics is in their future.

The 14 U.S. members of SwimMAC Carolina’s Team Elite are all traveling from Charlotte to Omaha, Neb., this week for the unforgiving U.S. Olympic Swim Trials. Starting Sunday in Omaha and continuing for seven more Darwinian days, they will compete in a meet where only the strongest survive.

In some ways, it’s worse than the Olympics. If you finish third in your event in the Olympics, you get a bronze medal. If you finish third in the U.S. Olympic Trials, you go home and scream underwater in frustration.

“To me,” Ryan Lochte said, “this meet is harder than the Olympics.”

Only the top two finishers in most events in Omaha will make the U.S. team. Even if you’re a famous 11-time Olympic medalist, as Lochte is, there are no guarantees.

Many U.S. teams in other Olympic sports such as basketball, volleyball and soccer are picked over a period of weeks or months and based on sustained excellence. But the U.S. swim team (and the track and field team, too) is chosen completely based on the performances in one meet.

Get sick, and it’s your tough luck. Go slow, and it’s over.

“In the past for me, this meet has been more nerve-rattling than the actual Olympics,” said Cullen Jones, the former N.C. State star who has lived in Charlotte for nearly a decade now and made the U.S. Olympic team in both 2008 and 2012. “The competition that we have to go up against in the U.S. is so stiff.”

At least 5 Olympians in 2016?

David Marsh, the head coach of Team Elite and the CEO of SwimMAC Carolina, is the only one in the team picture that accompanies this story who knows he will be in Brazil. Widely acknowledged as one of the best swim coaches in America, Marsh has already been named the head coach of the U.S. women’s swim team in Rio.

How many will join him on the journey from Charlotte to Brazil? Tough to say. Despite all the training in the water, all the “dry-land” work in the gym, all the daily competition inherent in what is arguably the most talented swim club in the country, in Omaha it will only matter who swims the best in the biggest moments.

“It’s a pretty incredible experience,” said Kathleen Baker, a 19-year-old Olympic hopeful who swam at the U.S. Olympic trials but didn’t make the squad at age 15. “When you go to trials, there are about 15,000-17,000 people staring at you for the finals, which is amazing. It’s really the only time that every single elite person in the U.S. is there, ready to race.”

SwimMAC Carolina hired Marsh in 2007, luring him away from Auburn to construct a team made up mostly of post-collegiate standouts who would be based at Charlotte’s SwimMAC club instead of at a college. In 2008 as Team Elite’s head coach, he coached two U.S. Olympians. In his second try in 2012 – after getting his program implemented for a full four-year cycle and seeing a number of very good swimmers from other parts of the country move to Charlotte to live and train – he coached five U.S. Olympians.

This time?

“It’s hard to say a number,” Marsh said, “but certainly I’d be very disappointed if we didn’t have at least five. We have the capacity to do that.”

‘Just not third’

Lochte is as close to a sure bet as there is to get to Rio. He has qualified for multiple events and will swim at least four, starting with the grueling 400 individual medley on Sunday. Cammile Adams, a butterfly specialist, also has a terrific chance and will go into the 200 butterfly as the No. 1 seed.

Beyond that, there are another dozen Team Elite swimmers who will almost certainly make the final eight in their event and then have a shot at top two. And there are a number of swimmers with North Carolina connections who also will compete in the Trials but who aren’t part of Team Elite. One of the best is freestyler Michael Chadwick, who grew up in Charlotte and now competes and trains at the University of Missouri. Chadwick has a very good chance to make the 100-meter Olympic relay team.

“It’s the most intense meet that I’ve been to every single time,” Marsh said. “And that’s because the U.S. is so deep in swimming and there is so much on the line. The moment that someone touches the wall and becomes an Olympian – for many of them, their life changes. It doesn’t change who they are, but it changes how they can reach and inspire people. It also changes the platform on which they can stand for the rest of their life.”

And if you don’t make it? Then just don’t finish a fingertip back in third place – the cruelest spot in the Olympic Trials.

“I tell people that I really hope I make the team,” Baker said. “But if I don’t, I hope I swim my best time ever and then get fourth. Just not third. No one wants to get third.”

U.S. Olympic Swim Trials

When: Sunday-July 3

Where: Omaha, Neb.

TV schedule

All finals to air on NBC

8 p.m. Sunday-July 2; 7 p.m. July 3

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