USA Swimming Splashes in With 2020 U.S. Open

American swimming successfully returned during COVID-19 with top swimmers competing at the 2020 U.S. Open, a meet vastly different from any other.

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By Chloe Huang

When the pandemic hit in March, we experienced a complete shift in our day-to-day life: disrupted routines, constant mask-wearing, online learning, and more. Of course, sports were not immune to these changes, and many seasons across the board were either postponed or canceled entirely. In recent months, however, we’ve witnessed the momentous returns of several major sports against all odds, including the NBA, MLB, and NFL. Now, at long last, it’s swimming’s turn.

After the numerous postponements of practices, meets, and even the 2020 Olympics, American swimming has officially returned with a bang as some of the nation’s top athletes competed in this year’s Toyota U.S. Open. As the first major domestic meet of USA Swimming’s newly released schedule for 2020, the U.S. Open offers us not only an idea of what high-profile meets will look like in the COVID-19 era but also a glimpse at some of our 2021 Olympic hopefuls.

The U.S. Open this year was unlike any before because of the new COVID-19 restrictions put in place—for the first time ever, the meet was not held at a singular location. Instead, USA Swimming opted for a “satellite meet.” Competitors were split amongst the Open’s nine locations across the country, and all their times were compiled to make the official results report. In each location, four sessions were held over three days, and the usual preliminaries and finals format was replaced in favor of timed finals for all events. The new guidelines expanded further with the implementation of temperature checks, social distancing, and higher chlorine levels. USA Swimming also created designated schedules for warm-up and cool-down periods and removed the ready room, which is where swimmers typically stay prior to their events. Instead, swimmers came on deck and reported directly to their lanes, with masks worn up until they stepped on the blocks and carrying only gear that could fit into a small drawstring bag.

One of the most disappointing changes that occurred as a result of the new COVID-19 guidelines was the lack of a championship atmosphere that normally goes hand-in-hand with such a high-profile meet. With either limited or no spectators in all the locations, the deafening cheers that one would expect at almost any swimming competition were gone, leaving the pool eerily quiet. Many swimmers thought that, in a way, it felt more like timed races at practice, simply because the energy of these huge competitions had disappeared. Also gone? The competitiveness of the meet. The U.S. Open is not an easy meet to qualify for: only the best swimmers are allowed to compete. This year, however, with athletes in different meet locations, several of the top swimmers found themselves without any competitors in their region. The lower energy and competitiveness, paired with the past few months of reduced training, led to many swimmers gaining time in their events.

The U.S. Open has always been an especially important meet, and even more so this year. This was the majority of swimmers’ first time racing since the start of the lockdown nine months ago. This meet gave them the opportunity to see their current performance and gear up for Olympic Trials. In addition, with Trials pushed back to 2021, the U.S. Open marks the beginning of the extra eight-month window during which emerging swimmers can get their trial cuts and potentially become Olympians. Of course, for this year, trial cuts are significantly faster than before, given that swimmers have had more time to train. Still, numerous athletes qualified in every event of the U.S. Open.

Several young swimmers made a splash over the three days of competition. Claire Curzan has proven herself to be a force to be reckoned with. Only a 16-year-old high school junior, Curzan smashed both the National Age Group and U.S. Open meet records, recording a 56.61 second 100-meter butterfly. She is now officially the third-fastest American of all time in the event, placing her as one of the favorites for the 2021 Olympic team. Curzan competed in three other events as well, placing in the top five for all of them. Other notable young swimmers include Emma Weyant, 18, winner of the 400-meter freestyle, Gretchen Walsh, 17, winner of the 50-meter freestyle, and Arabella Sims, 15, winner of the 800-meter freestyle.

Various big names also appeared at the meet. Ryan Lochte, 36, who is looking to compete as the oldest American male swimmer in his fifth Olympic Games next year, swam five events. His best was his 200-meter individual medley (IM), which he won in his location, though he took third overall with Chase Kalisz, 26, winning by over a second. However, Lochte’s performance and rankings in all his other events were not nearly as remarkable, as he continuously gained time across the board.

Famous competitors Kathleen Baker, 23, and Regan Smith, 18, battled it out in the 100-meter backstroke in their respective pools. With several records to their names, their races were highly anticipated, and they did not disappoint. Baker came in strong with a 59.82, out-touching Smith by a mere 13 hundredths of a second and securing first place in the event. Smith and Baker faced off again in the 200-meter backstroke, with Baker prevailing once more by 36 hundredths of a second. Outside of backstroke, Smith performed well in her three other events; she even placed first in the 200-meter butterfly by a full two seconds.

Cody Miller, a two-time medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics, also competed at the meet, swimming the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke. In both, he came second to rival Andrew Wilson, who won the overall event by 0.07 seconds in the 100-meter breast and .39 seconds in the 200-meter breast. Wilson ended up setting the new record for the U.S. Open 100-meter breast, beating Miller’s record from last year, and his 200-meter breast time placed him in the top 10 swimmers in the world for that event. Madisyn Cox, a former member of the U.S. National team, also had a fantastic meet, performing well in all three of her events. She placed first in both the 200-meter breast and 200-meter IM and second in the 200-meter freestyle. With overall stellar performances, all of these athletes have effectively placed themselves in the pool of most likely members of the 2021 Olympic team.

The U.S. Open provides a positive outlook for future domestic meets in the COVID-19 era, such as the first meet of the TYR Pro Swim Series, to be held in Knoxville, Tennessee, this January, where even more past and future Olympians will compete under similar guidelines. By holding this top-level championship meet with effectively-incorporated COVID-19 restrictions, USA Swimming has proven that it can come back successfully and safely in America. The return of swimming allows the nation’s top athletes to get back to training and competing as they prepare for Olympic Trials and hopefully secure their spot in Tokyo.