Local swim community has gone all in preparing for Olympic trials

Opened in 2008, Lucas Oil Stadium was designed to be a multi-purpose facility that was ahead of its time.

Claims to the contrary don’t really hold water — especially now that the stadium has proven it actually can.

The home of the Indianapolis Colts, which has played host to a Super Bowl, multiple Final Fours and an NBA All-Star Game (and will host three Taylor Swift shows later this year), will prove its versatility like never before when it becomes the first NFL stadium to house a swim meet. Katie Ledecky and hundreds of other Olympic hopefuls are coming to Lucas Oil for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, which begin with the women’s 100-meter butterfly preliminaries on Saturday morning and run through the night of June 23, closing with the men’s 1,500 freestyle final.

Organizers are hoping for an opening-night crowd of around 30,000, which would dwarf the top figure of 14,502 from the 2016 trials in Omaha, Nebraska and eclipse the 1936 Berlin Olympics crowd of 25,000 as the largest at an indoor swim meet.

Swimming has its share of iconic venues, such as the picturesque Lakeside Swim Club in Louisville. But those are more intimate, like seeing your favorite band perform a stripped-down set at a local bar. Doing the trials at Lucas Oil is quite literally a stadium show.

Center Grove Aquatic Club head coach and Center Grove High School aquatic director Brad Smith has seen just about everything over the course of his swimming life — but nothing quite like this.

“Every time I walk in, I’m just in awe,” he said.

The trials are conducting a full takeover of downtown Indianapolis (see Saturday’s Accent section for more details), and rightfully so; the event is expected to deliver an economic impact of more than $100 million locally during a year that has seen the city already get a nice boost from the NBA All-Star Weekend and the Indianapolis 500.

“This continues an unprecedented year of doing what Indianapolis does best,” mayor Joe Hogsett said during the unveiling of the pool last week.

Indianapolis — which last hosted the Olympic swim trials at the IU Natatorium in 2000 — was selected as the 2024 host not only because of its reputation for hosting big events but also because of its proven worth as a swimming hub.

Though its 4,700-seat bleachers have been deemed too small to host the trials, “The Nat” has regularly hosted NCAA championship meets (including the Division I men’s meet this year) — and Arlene McDonald, the natatorium’s event coordinator, is serving as the meet director for her fifth Olympic trials in a row after running the 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2021 events in Omaha.

“She’s such an expert on the process,” said Carrie Utterback, a former Franklin Regional Swim Team coach who now coaches in Columbus and has worked with McDonald at several championship meets, including these trials. “She’s incredibly good with people … she’s just good. And when you’re in her purview — we’re called Arlene’s Army for a reason. We are intensely loyal to her. She’s just one of those rare breeds.”

In addition to the expertise of McDonald and her supporting cast, the Indy area can offer up an abundance of Olympic-sized pools when compared with not only metropolitan Omaha but almost any city in America. At least a dozen such facilities are available within the city and immediately surrounding counties, with a handful of others within less than an hour of driving.

Among those local 50-meter pools are the high school natatoriums at Center Grove and Franklin — and both are being fully utilized over the next week and a half.

For the past several months, both CGAC and FRST have been coordinating with other swim clubs across the country about renting out lanes — not only for athletes who are in the area to race in the trials, but also those who are here to watch them. Young swimmers coming from all over America are also looking to practice and compete while they’re here.

Smith is part of the off-site opportunities committee that has been helping to connect visiting clubs with local pools, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that both Center Grove and Franklin will welcome out-of-state visitors to their respective club meets next weekend. CGAC’s Mid-Summer Spectacular (June 20-23) includes teams from as far away as Palo Alto, California; the FRST Summer Classic (June 21-23) will feature swimmers from Florida and Honduras.

Paul Stockett, an assistant coach at FRST that has been coordinating the booking of lane space at Franklin, says that while the swim clubs have done the legwork in generating that outside revenue, all of the money will go back to the schools.

“We want this to be an event that helps support the athletic department,” Stockett said, “and do our part in giving them as much support as we can by helping bring in some outside funds.”

Swimmers from those far-flung locales might be racing at Center Grove and Franklin, but they traveled here primarily to witness the biggest swim meet in history. And it’s going to be big.

The construction of the temporary swim venue, which began on May 12 and wrapped in just over three weeks, has been a massive undertaking in itself.

Almost two million gallons of water, pumped in from the White River via hydrants, are being chlorinated and filtered through the three temporary pools inside the stadium. According to Jeff Willman, the vice president of water operations at Citizens Energy, the water will be safely removed, treated and returned to the river after the trials.

The pool deck is three meters above field level — goalpost height, give or take. Some of the field-level suites have been transformed into makeshift offices below deck for McDonald and others.

Building a temporary pool for the trials is not a novel concept. Since the last time Indianapolis hosted at the IU Natatorium in 2000, Myrtha has built the pools for each of those competitions (Long Beach, California in 2004 and Omaha, Nebraska in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2021). And they haven’t gone to waste, either — after the trials, the pools are deconstructed and transported to new homes around the nation and beyond.

Previous competition pools are now entrenched in such locales as Minneapolis (2021), Fargo, North Dakota (2016); Boston (2012); Richmond, Virginia (2008); and Yucaipa, California (2004). This year’s competition pool will head to Fort Wayne to become part of a planned new aquatic facility, with the 50- and 25-meter warmup pools bound for the Cayman Islands.

But this is the first time that USA Swimming has set up shop in such a large space, one that not only allows the swimmers to warm up and warm down under the same roof as the competition pool but also allows for more than twice as many spectators. Not surprisingly, a lot of preparation has gone into every aspect of this meet, not just the construction — and the local swim community has been heavily involved.

Smith’s committee has not only hooked up lane space for incoming swimmers, but also assisted with finding lodging — visitors will be staying at Franklin College, Marian University and IUPUI, among other locations in the area. Having gotten most of that work done ahead of time, he’s since spent much of the last few weeks assisting with anything else McDonald might need on site.

“Whatever she tells me to do, I do,” he said. “I really appreciate the role that I’m playing.”

Brad Smith’s daughter Kaitlin, an age group coach at CGAC, has been part of the committee tasked with soliciting nominations from swim clubs across the state and selecting 105 kids to work as basket carriers during the meet. She recalled carrying the American flag during the parade of nations at a world championship meet when she was 11 or 12 and is happy to give other young swimmers a similar moment on one of the sport’s biggest stages.

All six nominees from county clubs — two apiece from Center Grove Aquatic Club, Greenwood Gators and Warriors Swim Club in Whiteland — were among those selected.

“We have several kids from Johnson County that are able to be involved and hopefully will remember this for the rest of their life,” Kaitlin said. “I had an experience like that, that changed my outlook on the sport, and now I get to kind of be responsible for the kids and allow them to have this opportunity that will change their outlook on the sport and the level of expectation of what they can do.”

Those young swimmers went through two training sessions in the spring and then worked the Stadium Splash meet at the trials pool last weekend that served as a dry run for not only the overall meet operation but the facility as well.

Now, the dress rehearsals are done. Come Saturday morning, it’s go time, and the local swim community — kids and grown-ups alike — is ready for its moment.

“This is our Super Bowl,” Brad Smith said, “and it’s going to be such a great experience.”


U.S. Olympic Team Trials

Where: Lucas Oil Stadium

When: Saturday through June 23; preliminaries are at 11 a.m. each day with finals at 8 p.m.

Tickets: Available at usaswimming.org

TV: All finals sessions will air live on NBC; preliminaries will be streamed live on Peacock and tape-delayed on USA Network