|The Centurylink Center will feel a bit more crowded in 2012|
In May of 2011, USA Swimming sent their #2 man Mike Unger to the CSCAA meeting in San Diego. I sat in a room as Unger announced that to that point, roughly 800 swimmers had qualified for Trials and that he expected roughly 200 more to make it under the standard. He assured the assembled coaches that 2008's Trials meet with 1200 swimmers was too big and that it shouldn't happen again.
There are only two possibilities for why Unger said this. Either, he couldn't predict that far more than 200 (roughly 1200) would qualify in the intervening time period. Or, he knew that far more were qualified and was purposely deceitful to mollify coaches. To speak to the former, I can understand why the overwhelmingly conservative hive mind in Colorado Springs would predict a smaller number of qualifiers for 2012. After all, "the suits" were gone and the standards were the same. This both overestimated the helpfulness of "the suits" and underestimated the recent improvement curve in swimming worldwide. As for the latter, I'm far beyond expecting transparency from the leadership of USA Swimming.
The final piece in the puzzle are of course the standards themselves, largely unchanged in the past 30 years. If you want a comparison for how much the standards would have to change to reflect the worldwide improvement in swimming times, take a look at FINA's B standards over the same time period.
Whether or not the resulting huge number of qualifiers is a positive development depends on who you ask. From the standpoint of having a meet to select our Olympic team, its a disaster. Actual olympic hopefuls will have to contend with overcrowding both in terms of the length of the prelim session and in warmup spaces. From a developmental standpoint, it could be argued that getting a ton of athletes to the meet to have the experience is excellent. From a business standpoint, USA Swimming looks to reap huge amounts of money from the number of entrants, not only in entry fees but also in ticket sales and from sponsorship agreements (particularly Marriott hotels). At this year's CSCAA meeting, National Team Director Frank Busch told coaches that the economic impact of hosting Trials was now $35-40 million dollars for the host city, and it's reflected in the number of cities lining up to bid for the 2016 version.
Olympic trials, rather than being primarily a selection meet for our London squad, has become another vehicle of USA Swimming's business plan. Facing the seemingly insurmountable task of building interest from non-participants, Colorado Springs has instead built their business model on extracting more from their large and mostly affluent membership. They certainly are succeeding.