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U.S. Olympic trials feels like Super Bowl of swimming at home of NFL Colts

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The U.S. Olympic swimming trials will make a splash on their grandest stage yet — a temporary pool inside the massive domed stadium that is home to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts.

The powerhouse American team will be determined over the nine-day, prime-time competition, which starts Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium with the spotlight on Katie Ledecky and her quest for a fourth trip to the Summer Games.

As usual, there are plenty of compelling storylines at a meet that many swimmers find more nerve-wracking than the actual Olympics. And the massive venue only adds to the feeling that this is the Super Bowl of swimming.

“I’m excited. It’s going to be different, for sure,” said Jack Aikins, a University of Virginia swimmer who will be attempting to make the team in the backstroke.

Aikins will be competing with his face up at Lucas Oil Stadium, which should provide the best view in the place.

“Nobody else but the backstrokers really get to experience how massive it is,” he said. “Everyone else is staring down at the black line on the bottom of the pool except for us. We really get to witness everything while we race.”

In a sign of how much the trials have grown, this will be the first time the meet has been held in Indianapolis since 2000 — when a then-unknown swimmer named Michael Phelps qualified for his Olympic debut.

That year, the trials were held at the 4,700-seat Indiana University Natatorium. The set-up at Lucas Oil Stadium can accommodate as many as 32,000 fans, which would be the largest crowds ever to attend an indoor swim meet.

Ledecky is already one of America’s most celebrated Olympic athletes with a half-dozen individual gold medals — more than any other female swimmer.

She’s not done yet.

Ledecky has changed things up since the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games, moving to Florida to train under coach Anthony Nesty, who will lead the U.S. men’s team at the Olympics.

The 27-year-old Ledecky goes into the trials as top seed in four freestyle events ranging from 200 to 1,500 meters. But her competition on the world stage has closed the gap significantly since her stellar performance at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

In Tokyo, Ledecky settled for silver behind Australia’s Ariarne Titmus in the 400 freestyle, and the American star didn’t medal at all in the 200 free.

Caeleb Dressel was the biggest male swimming star at the Tokyo Games, claiming five gold medals.

A year later, burned out and in desperate need of an extended break, he walked away from swimming in the midst of the world championships in Budapest.

Once Dressel returned to the pool, it took a while to get back up to speed. He failed to qualify for the 2023 world championships in Fukuoka, skipped the February worlds in Doha and arrives in Indianapolis seeded no higher than third in his three signature events.

Simone Manuel, the first Black female person to claim an individual gold medal in swimming, is also on the comeback trail.

She barely qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, which led to a doctor-ordered break from all physical activity to allow her body to heal. But she’s swimming fast again, stamping herself as one of the top contenders in the 50 and 100 freestyle.

“I’m very pleased with where she is at,” said one of her coaches, Bob Bowman. “I don’t think we could ask for better preparations.”

The Americans won’t be competing against other nations until they get to Paris, but doping revelations involving the Chinese team have become a major talking point heading into the trials.

In April, it was revealed that nearly two dozen top Chinese swimmers tested positive for a banned substance before the Tokyo Olympics, but no sanctions were levied after the World Anti-Doping Agency accepted the explanation that it was caused by tainted food.

“It’s hard going into Paris knowing that we’re going to be racing some of these athletes,” Ledecky said in a recent interview with CBS. “And I think our faith in some of the systems is at an all-time low.”

Kate Douglass, who claimed two golds and five medals overall at this year’s world championships, said she’s trying to put the doping case out of her mind.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re unsure if these claims are true and what’s behind all that,” Douglass said. “But I just focus on myself.”

Many top swimmers skipped the February worlds in Doha after scheduling changes prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the championships into an Olympic year.

It will be interesting to see how it affects those who decided to compete in a major international meet just months ahead of the U.S. trials.

Douglass called it “a great experience” that allowed her to get in some top-level racing. Aikins took advantage of a limited American squad to win four relay medals.

“Having a big taper meet like that, which happened to be an international experience like that, was really, really helpful to me in my preparations for trials,” Aikins said.

The trials always produce a wave of new American stars, and this meet won’t be any different.

Keep an eye on swimmers like Jack Alexy, a towering 21-year-old looking to qualify for his first Olympics.

In his senior international debut, he earned one gold, three silvers and a bronze at the 2023 world championships in Fukuoka.

Now, his sights are on Olympic gold.

“It’s been truly awesome to race against the world’s best, especially going into an Olympic year,” Alexy said. “It gives me a lot of confidence.”

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AP Summer Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/summer-olympics

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