Who would have thought that the biggest swim meet in the U.S. in 2020 would have been at a YMCA — in Des Moines?
But that’s how it turned out once the Olympics and Swim Trials were postponed in late March.
That meant the Pro Swim Series at the Des Moines downtown YMCA from March 5 through 7 was the final significant swimming competition before the pandemic pushed the Tokyo Olympics — and all of the accompanying qualifying events — back to 2021.
In March, Omaha’s downtown arena was being prepared to host its fourth straight Olympic Swim Trials and the 1,220 Olympic hopefuls chasing their dreams. The Trials will return to the CHI Health Center from June 13 through 20 while Des Moines was not awarded one of the 2020-21 Pro Swim Series events.
Still, what took place that weekend in Des Moines were performances by past and present Olympians that will stand among the world’s best in 2020.
Five-time gold medalist Katie Ledecky won three events at the Wellmark YMCA with what will stand as the fastest times in the world for the 2019-20 season. Ledecky won all three of her freestyle races — the 200 in 1:54.59, the 400 in 3:59.66 and the 1,500 in 15:29.61 — and wasn’t the only Des Moines visitor to post a 2020 world-leading mark.
Emerging superstar Caeleb Dressel ends the season ranked No. 1 in the 100 butterfly (50.92) after being pushed by Michael Andrew, who finished second in 51.33 — the sixth-best time this year. Those two also were the top Americans in the 50 freestyle.
Andrew swam a 1:56.83 in Des Moines to win the 200 IM, the fourth-fastest time in the world this year. Backstroke specialist Ryan Murphy posted the No. 2 time in the 100 at 52.79; he already was the world leader in the 200 backstroke.
Female backstrokers also proved in Des Moines that they are ready to take on the world’s best.
Regan Smith, who bettered existing world records in the 100 and 200 backstroke at the 2019 world championships at the age of 17, had her best two swims of 2020 at the Y. Her 58.18 in the 100 is the world’s best this year and her 2:05.94 in the 200 is second. She also has a third world record as a member of the 400 medley relay.
Kathleen Baker, a former world record holder in the 100 backstroke, also had season-best times in both races and is third on the world leaders list.
Watching Smith and Baker duel this week in Omaha would have been one of the highlights of the Swim Trials, the eight-day event that would have begun June 21.
The first four men and two women would have qualified for the Olympics on opening night. The women’s 1,500 freestyle Wednesday, with Ledecky taking aim at another world record in the first-time Olympic event for women, would have marked the halfway point.
The meet would have concluded Sunday. The U.S. team would have taken a lap around the CHI pool, traded high-fives and taken photos with fans fortunate enough to have front-row seats.
How this unexpected gap year affects stars like Ledecky, Smith, Baker and Lilly King on the women’s side and top men’s performers Murphy, Dressel and Zach Apple remains to be seen.
Will this be a year for them to get even better? Or will a budding star rise and snag an Olympic berth he or she wasn’t ready to claim in 2020?
Another angle to watch is how many of the older swimmers — late 20s/early 30s is getting up there in swimming — will say one more year is too much after planning to call it a career in 2020. That thought process also applies to college swimmers who exhausted their eligibility this year.
That thought immediately brings to mind guys like Ryan Lochte, Anthony Ervin, Matt Grevers and Nathan Adrian. Ervin will be 40 next year as he tries to qualify in Omaha to defend the gold medal he won in the 50 freestyle in Rio in 2016.
Lochte will be 36 but swims the grueling individual medleys — his best shot will be in the 200 IM. Grevers also will be 36 in 2021. He’s trying to make the team again after finishing third in the 2016 Trials.
Adrian showed in Des Moines that he still has his fastball and can’t be counted out of the 50 or 100 free, though he will be 32 next year.
Expect all of them to continue grinding and make several championship finals, same as Breeja Larson and Allison Schmitt on the women’s side. Larson will be 29 as she attempts to make her second Olympic team after winning the 2012 Trials 100 breaststroke.
Schmitt has been one of the most beloved swimmers — by swimmers, fans and coaches — for more than a decade for her laugh, smile and energy. She has become more than Robin to Michael Phelps’ Batman. At 30 next year, she is aiming for her fourth Olympic team after becoming the ninth American female to qualify for three.
We can only imagine what the 2020 team would have looked like. It’s worth waiting another year to dream about who will travel to Tokyo to represent the U.S.