OMAHA, Neb.—With about three weeks to go before the competition to determine the U.S. Olympic swimming team, elite athletes like Katie Hoff and Michael Phelps don't have to turn heads at the final Grand Prix meet this weekend.
Many swimmers are using the Mutual of Omaha Swimvitational as an opportunity to compete in the pool that will hold the Olympic trials and to tweak technique and strategy. There's not even any suspense about who will be the overall winner of the eight-event Toyota Grand Prix series and the $20,000 prize. With a 35-point lead, Phelps could be a no-show and still pocket the cash.
Towson's Hoff will swim six events: the 100 and 200 breaststroke, 100 butterfly, 100 and 200 backstroke and the 50 freestyle.
"She doesn't need to swim her best events every time to be OK," says Paul Yetter, Hoff's coach. "These are fun events, and she can do well in them."
Hoff, who turned 19 this week, says she wants to avoid putting pressure on herself.
"That's why I didn't want to be swimming anything I would at trials. I didn't want to be comparing. I just don't do that," she says.
Yet Hoff is excited about her final event of the meet - the 200 backstroke, where she has the top-seeded time.
"I can't swim it at trials," she says of a schedule conflict with the 800 freestyle. "But I've always liked it, and I think I can do well in it."
Phelps will be in four events: the 100- and 200 freestyle, the 100 butterfly and 100 backstroke.
It should be a relatively stress-free meet for the swimmer from Rodgers Forge, who recently turned up the intensity of his training with a lengthy stay in the high altitude of Colorado Springs, Colo. Despite some issues with his new swimsuit - he's broken several drawstrings in the Speedo LZR Racer and briefly switched back to his old suit - he has been swimming well.
At the Santa Clara (Calif.) Grand Prix last month, Phelps beat Aaron Peirsol in the 100 backstroke, the first time the six-time Olympic gold medalist has defeated Peirsol in a backstroke event. Though he's unlikely to swim the backstroke in Beijing, it does bode well for Phelps' time in the 400 IM, an event he has been less than pleased with the past several months.
Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman, has continued his policy of not releasing what events Phelps will swim at the Olympic trials until the last possible moment, so the Swimvitational might be the last time he'll swim the 100 freestyle this year. When Phelps burst onto the international scene four years ago, his strength was his incredible endurance and his ability to conserve energy for late in the race. But over the past 18 months, he has shown the swimming world he's also a force to be reckoned with in sprints.
At a Grand Prix meet in April, he finished second to Brazil's Cesar Cielo by .07 of a second in the 100 freestyle, but swam the fastest time of his career (48.41).
Yetter says getting accustomed to the pool is particularly important for the backstroke, where a swimmer loses visual contact and can stray diagonally. Almost all of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmers competing in the Omaha meet and at trials have a backstroke event this weekend.
"It's nice to be in the environment, to gauge the walls and get comfortable with it," he says. "The [other] nice thing about going to Omaha before the trials is that you get to know where everything is, the hotel, the warm-up pool, and how long it takes to get there.
"Katie is ready to go. If she's feeling good, I'm feeling good."